Despite suffering an ignominious 4-0 defeat to Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal on Tuesday, Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova believes that their position in La Liga demonstrates the quality his side still possesses.
Many have been quick to use the result at the Allianz Arena as a shifting of the guard from Spain to Germany as well as a potential end to a trophy-laden era at Camp Nou.
Vilanova, though, was quick to quash both suggestions.
“We are having an excellent league, I’m convinced that we’re in the strongest league there is, and getting so many points shows that we are doing things right,” he said, according to Barcelona’s official website.
The midweek defeat inevitably also brought questions from some quarters about the futures of some members of the Barcelona squad as well as the manager. But in his first press conference since returning from cancer treatment in New York, Vilanova said that he is eager to continue in the role.
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“I feel strong, and health permitting, I’m looking forward to continuing in the job,” he explained. “I feel well after all that I’ve been through.”
Barcelona currently hold a 13 point lead atop La Liga and could potentially wrap up the title on Saturday if they can beat Bilbao and Real Madrid lose to rivals Atletico Madrid later in the day.
Vilanova is understandably eager to secure the reclaiming of the Primera Division title.
“I don’t care when we win it, but the sooner the better” he said. “I want us to be the champions.”
While Barcelona may have witnessed a drop off this season, the decline has been far more dramatic for Athletic Bilbao.
Marcelo Bielsa’s men were one of the most heralded sides in Europe last season as they reached the final of the Europa League. But the departure of Javi Martinez accompanied by acrimonious wrangling over the future of star striker Fernando Llorente has precipitated a less than cordial atmosphere at the club.
In just his fourth start, Llorente scored only his second league goal of the season against Deportivo La Coruna last week. A 1-1 draw gave Bilbao their only point from their last three outings, but, currently in 14th place, barring something extraordinary, they should at least be safe from relegation.
Bielsa will be unable to call upon midfielder Ander Iturraspe through suspension, while Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano will again be missing for Barcelona with injury.
Athletic Bilbao (probable)
D: Iraola, Gurpegi, Ekiza, Aurtenetxe
M: San Jose, Herrera
Susaeta, De Marcos, Muniain
D: Montoya, Adriano, Abidal, Alba
M: Thiago, Song, Fabregas
F: Sanchez, Villa, Tello
Prediction: The defeat to Bayern Munich would have been a humbling experience as Barcelona were thoroughly outplayed and struggled both to create chances and to keep their opponents out at the other end.
Despite their four-goal deficit, Vilanova still claims to believe that Barcelona can mount a comeback and is thus likely to make a host of changes to keep players fresh for the second leg on Wednesday.
The likes of Thiago Alcantara and Cristian Tello have shown good form in recent weeks, though, and against a struggling Bilbao side that concedes plenty of goals, Barcelona should still pick up a win.
Athletic Bilbao 1-3 Barcelona
Where to watch: The Liga contest will kick-off from San Mames at noon ET. Coverage will be provided by beIN Sport. A live stream, which you view at your own discretion, will be available here.