Hello and welcome Sports Mole
's live text coverage of the Copa del Rey
last-16 clash between Athletic Bilbao
at San Mames. Barca defeated this evening's opponents en route to defending the cup last season, while also getting the better of them in three of the last eight finals. Bilbao have proven pedigree in this competition down the years, though, winning it an impressive 23 times in all - second only to Barcelona, who are looking for a 'three-peat' this time around.
It is a tie that has been set up nicely, pitting together its two most successful sides in a battle to reach the quarter-final stage. We have already seen fellow favourites Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid open up strong leads in their respective first-leg ties, but now it is the turn of the dominant force in the competition to show us what they are made of following a prolonged break.
Barca boss Luis Enrique
has already promised us that we may get a glimpse of that famed forward trio of Lionel Messi
, Luis Suarez and Neymar this evening - all of whom were omitted for the previous tie against Hercules. Furthermore, the Spaniard also suggested that they are now 'better than ever' after enjoying a couple of weeks away and fully recuperating from a testing first half to the campaign. With that in mind, let us check out some team news!
ATHLETIC BILBAO XI: Iraizoz; Boveda, Laporte, Etxeita, Balenziaga; San Jose, Ituraspe; Williams, R. Garcia, Saborit; Aduriz
BARCELONA XI: Ter Stegen; S. Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, J. Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Starting with a look at the home team and, as promised by Enrique, the big boys are back in the side. It has been a few weeks since the likes of Messi, Suarez and Neymar stretched their legs in a competitive outing, so this cup tie - with less pressure than a league game due to its two-legged nature - a perfect chance for those star names to be integrated back into the fold. All three start up top, while Ivan Rakitic is preferred to Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes.
Denis Suarez did not even travel with the squad, in fact, while Aleix Vidal was also omitted from the list of players that made the journey to the Basque Country as he continues to be linked with a move away from the club. Jeremy Mathieu is another player that Barca will have to do without this evening, with the centre-back now medically cleared to play following his injury layoff but not being given the green light to feature by Enrique.
Enrique has made a big call in goal, meanwhile, because Marc-Andre ter Stegen has been selected in the absence of cup goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen. Jordi Matip was expected to start this one in what would be a rare outing, but instead it is another chance for Cillessen to impress his manager. A couple of big calls made, then, with this a very, very strong-looking Barcelona starting lineup as the attempt to kick off 2017 in winning style.
In terms of the hosts, boss Ernesto Valverde
- linked with the Barcelona job in recent weeks amid talk that Enrique could pack it in at the end of the current season - has decided to leave out both Beaat and Muniain from the off. The big absentee from the side is Oscar de Marcos, who remains sidelined with a foot injury and has created some issues for his manager to deal with at the back.
Eneko Boveda was always likely to deputise in De Marcos's absence, and that is indeed the case as he slots into one of the full-back berths. Aymeric Laporte, once again linked with a Premier League move this month, offers a steady pair of legs in the centre of defence while Inaki Williams
provides blistering pace at the other end of the field. Aritz Aduriz
also starts this cup tie, looking to build on a record of 12 goals in 19 appearances this campaign.
ATHLETIC BILBAO SUBS: Elustondo, Eraso, Benat, Muniain, Susaeta, Mikel Rico, Arrizabalaga
BARCELONA SUBS: Masip, Digne, Mascherano, Andre Gomes, Rafinha, Turan, Alcacer
Bilbao have had some injury problems of their own, including the loss of De Marcos at the back, but they do have a number of options on the bench to call upon should they be chasing a goal. I would say nothing can be won or lost tonight, but we have so often seen Barcelona put sides to the sword so a few goals this evening and it could very well be goodnight ahead of that second leg. The XI named by Enrique is strong enough, while Andre Gomes, Rafinha, Turan and Alcacer add further quality from the bench.
Barcelona manager Luis Enrique claimed in the build-up to this match that his famed forward trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar will return from their winter breaks feeling stronger than ever. All three start this match, having been omitted from the squad entirely for the second-leg tie with Hercules altogether a few weeks back, so this is our first chance to see if they can hit the ground running.
Barca have it all to do in La Liga as we prepare for the start of the second half of the campaign, trailing rivals Real Madrid by three points and likely to fall a further three back if Los Blancos win their game in hand as expected. The target for Enrique, who is yet to decide his long-term future at Camp Nou, is to match last season's domestic double at the very least, with Champions League success now long overdue following a one-year absence (!).
A run of three-successive games without a win a month or so back has seemingly cost Barcelona, who are now playing catch up on their great Spanish rivals. Madrid really do look like a force to be reckoned with, brushing aside all comers and going the entire year unbeaten under Zidane - 38 games in all now following an emphatic first-leg win over Sevilla last night. Barca avoided the likes of Atletico, Real and even Sevilla, but Athletic are more successful in this competition than any of those sides.
Barca beat Bilbao at the quarter-final stage last season en route to successfully defending their crown, with this a fixture more suited for the latter stages of the competition than the round-of-16. It should - should! - prove to be tighter than some of the other fixtures played so far; Atletico, Real, Celta Vigo and Real Sociedad all building up solid first-leg leads, while two of the other ties remain all square at the midway point.
DID YOU KNOW? I mentioned that Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao en route to defending their Copa del Rey crown last season, well no side in the modern era has ever manage to successfully keep hold of the cup for three years running. It was the Catalan giants who last achieved the feat when pulling off a 'three-peat' between 1951-53. Wins over Sevilla and Bilbao in the last two finals stands them in good stead to achieve that once more.
Bilbao really have come to dislike Barcelona in this competition, however, losing to them not only in last year's quarter-final but also in three of the last eight finals. Overcoming Les Leones on this occasion will not be easy for Enrique's men, but they have named a very strong XI this evening - even opting for Ter Stegen over the less-heralded Jordi Masip - and you have to fancy them to progress through. They could then face one of Real or Atleti, both of whom came through their first-leg ties unscathed.
It will be interesting to see just how quickly Barca get into their passing groove this evening, however, following a prolonged winter break. It was only officially a couple of weeks between games, but Pique, Messi, Suarez and Neymar were all given an extra week off as they were not used for that Copa del Rey thrashing of Hercules in the second leg. That 7-1 win at Camp Nou came on the back of a 1-1 draw from the opening 90 minutes, but the Catalans made no mistake on home soil.
Barca have also defeated Sevilla this term to win the Spanish Super Cup, but there was of course no European Super Cup or Club World Cup to compete for this term due to their failure to keep hold of the Champions League in 2015-16, this seeing their hopes of a double-treble thwarted. Enrique's men will do well to keep their hopes in that showpiece competition alive this time around, too, as they face a double-header against Unai Emery's Paris Saint-Germain next month - one of the toughest possible ties they could have been given.
The focus for now is very much on getting back on track in La Liga and progressing from this Copa del Rey tie, with victory over the now-managerless Osasuna and the thrashing of neighbours Espanyol getting them back on track prior to the winter break. Barca must now hope that Real slip up over the coming weeks and month, knowing that they have a nice run of winnable games overall - on paper, at least - to pounce should that happen.
Questions remain over Luis Enrique's long-term future at Camp Nou, as he has yet to commit beyond the end of the current campaign. Barcelona are still on course to win a second treble under the Spaniard, having also done so in his first campaign at the helm in 2014-15, but they face tricky opponents in both the Copa del Rey and Champions League, while also trailing Real Madrid by three points - having played one game more than their opponents - in La Liga.
Les Leones are looking to bring home the Copa del Rey for a 24th time, meanwhile, currently sitting second in the last behind only the giants that are Barcelona (28). Bilbao have fallen just short on three of the last eight occasions, each time losing to the Catalan club in the final of the competition. They would love to exactly revenge this time around, having also been knocked out by the same opposition 12 months or so ago.
Bilbao find themselves seventh in the La Liga standings following a mixed run of form prior to the winter break. Another top-six finish is still on the cards if they can find some consistent performances, having failed to win back-to-back games since a four-in-a-row run through the month of September. Three of their victories from the last nine have been followed up by a draw or defeat in the next league outing, but they have a chance to put that right when they return to La Liga action on Sunday.
Valverde's charges are also through to the knockout stages of the Europa League, where they are scheduled to face APOEL Nicosia over two legs next month. Getting things steady in the league is a top priority for now, though, with winnable games against Alaves and Leganes either side of this cup clash with Barcelona. Bilbao face Barca again in La Liga in a month's time, shortly after taking on Atletico - two of the three hardest fixtures in the calendar.
In terms of their cup exploits to date, Athletic saw off Racing Santander in the previous round. Les Leones won 5-1 across the two legs, getting the job done on home soil with an emphatic win after the two teams played out a tightly-contested first leg. The nature of the Copa del Rey means that the top boys more often than not progress through, as even after a shock result in the opening 90 minutes they still have a chance to rectify it at home.
I mentioned a little earlier that Bilbao are second only to Barcelona in terms of Copa Del Reys won, though it should be pointed out that the last of those triumphs did come back in 1984, with those three finals defeats in the past decade thrown in for good measure. Valverde is supposedly in the frame to replace Enrique in the Camp Nou hot seat, so this will be seen as a chance to get one over the former Roma boss to add another scalp to his CV.
PREVIOUS MEETINGS! As well as those aforementioned cup ties from recent times, Athletic Bilbao have also fallen short in La Liga meetings with Barcelona. All-in-all, the Catalan side have won each of the last five encounters in all competitions; the most recent being a 1-0 triumph at San Mames at the end of August when Ivan Rakitic headed home the only goal of the game 21 minutes in.
With kickoff now a little over five minutes away at San Mames, let us check out some pre-match thoughts from both camps.
Ernesto Valverde: "Messi, Suarez and Neymar are dangerous even if they are on vacation, even if they come back only on Thursday morning. They are great players who can decide matches in an instant."
Luis Enrique: "I have no doubt that I'm at the best team, with the best club, with the best players, in my house and with my family, winning things and being very involved. But there is also one thing about this job that is very hard, it costs me a lot and it's a negative that I have to factor in when considering the next few seasons. I am aware that I am either here or nowhere. I have time and the club will stand by me."
Valverde talking up the talents of Messi, Suarez and Neymar there, each of whom start this evening's first-leg tie in the Basque Country. Enrique making clear that he 'has time and the backing' to continue as Barcelona manager, meanwhile, but should Real continue to build up steam and win the La Liga title, there will be huge pressure on him to win the Champions League at the very least. The Copa del Rey, as ever, is third on the list of priorities.
The king of the Copa del Rey ready to face off at San Mames for this first leg encounter. A look at Barcelona's starting lineup tells you all you need to know about the difficulty of this tie, while home side Athletic Bilbao make three changes in all from their final outing of 2016 - that comfortable home triumph over Racing Santander to make it through to this stage.
© Getty Images
KICKOFF! We are up and running at San Mames, where Athletic Bilbao are sporting their traditional red and white home strip and Barcelona are sporting their blue away strip. Good early pressure from Les Leones to earn a corner.
CLOSE! Just two minutes or so on the clock but already the game has just witnessed its first chance. A corner was swung into the near-post area, where Mikel San Jose got to the ball unmarked only to nod narrowly wide of the target.
A very bright start to the match for the hosts, as Ter Stegen is made to come for the ball at full stretch to clear some danger. Iniesta then gave away the ball and a cross into the box was so nearly fired home at the back post.
Home fans are well up for this one, which their team is clearly thriving off as they have started by far the better. Barcelona slowly finding their rhythm now, though, looking to finally get out of first gear at San Mames.
First we have seen of the visitors in the attacking third, with Neymar bringing the ball forward and laying it off to Rakitic. The ball does not make it as far as the box, however, and Athletic are easily able to clear their lines.
SAVE! Neymar and Suarez not quite on the same wavelength as Barca continue to struggle to find their groove in attack. Messi having to drop deep alongside Iniesta at times to help bring the ball forward, while up the other end Aduriz sends a weak header on target.
Best we have seen from the visitors so far; Neymar being given acres of space in the box but flashing a cross right through, before the ball was cut back to Messi to blast wide of the post from his first sight of goal.
A decent cross from Sergio Roberto is pounced on by Iraizoz, who was just happy to punch the ball to safety with Messi lurking close behind. Barcelona now the team on top but it is the hosts who have had the two best openings so far.
It was a very slow start from Barcelona, but they have showed signs of growing into the contest over the last five or six minutes. Still no saves for Iraizoz to make, though that will surely soon change with Messi, Suarez and Neymar on the field.
Bilbao now turning to tackles to break up Barca's attacking play. Raul Garcia was the guilty party on this occasion, completely taking out Neymar towards the final third of the field but somehow avoiding a yellow card for the challenge.
CHANCE! Best chance of the match so far, and the first for Barcelona all evening, as Messi picks out Pique who heads the ball wide and is taken out by Iraizoz in the process. The centre-back was unhappy but the chance had come and gone.
Bilbao have done extremely well in the opening quarter of this match, constantly pressing their opponents high up the pitch in the hope of forcing an error. The two-week break has done them well, as they look very fresh at the moment.
GOAL! ATHLETIC BILBAO 1-0 BARCELONA (ARITZ ADURIZ)
Not for the first time tonight Iniesta gives away possession and, just a handful of touches later, the ball is put in the back of the net by Aduriz. Once the ball was won by the prolific forward he spread it out to Raul Garcia, who returned it to the back post for his teammate to head past Ter Stegen.
GOAL! ATHLETIC BILBAO 2-0 BARCELONA (INAKI WILLIAMS)
A stunning goal from Inaki Williams gives Athletic a two-goal advantage at San Mames - how about that! A deft flick from Aduriz set the ball nicely for his teammate to put his foot through it, and he did exactly that from 10 yards out to leave Ter Stegen rooted to his spot.
The home fans on their feet now, loving every second of what they are witnessing. Valverde has his players constantly pressing Barca, who are really struggling to get the ball out from under their feet in their own final third.
Messi has been quiet so far, but he jinks past one and then past another before feeding it through to Alba. The ball comes into the box but is quickly cleared away. The hosts cannot afford to let their high levels drop before half time.
Valverde deserves huge praise for this first-half display from his side. The high pressing has worked a treat, with forwards Aduriz and Williams capitalising to put Les Leones two ahead in this first leg at San Mames.
Barca giving away the ball so often in this first half; very uncharacteristic but that is what a couple of weeks away - three weeks in the case of some of them - can do. Bilbao win another corner for Ter Stegen to pluck out of the air.
This is not good. Umtiti takes a real blow to the face from that corner, but play is allowed to continue for a good 30 seconds or so. The Frenchman is screaming in agony and seemingly struggling to properly breath, but the physios are now with him.
Umtiti still in a real bad way at the moment. Replays have shown that Aduriz caught his opponent right in the throat with his first, from what unfortunately appeared to be a deliberate act. If the officials spotted that it would have been a straight red.
YELLOW CARDS! Things starting to boil over now at San Mames. Umtiti goes over to Aduriz after coming back on the field and is right in his face. Both players are shown a yellow, which the Bilbao man is furious about.
A breathtaking half of football is now just a minute or two from coming to an end. No way through for Barcelona thus far, and they have not even managed to test Bilbao keeper Iraizoz despite chasing a goal for large parts of the half.
SAVE! Barcelona's best spell of the half is left right until the end. Messi threaded Alba through first of all, but the full-back's cross was well blocked by Laporte. Neymar was then picked out from nowhere but was blocked by Iraizoz at this near post.
PENALTY APPEAL! Neymar is clearly brought down inside the penalty area but the referee somehow rejects the appeals for a spot kick. A shocking call, which leads to Alba and Busquets being shown yellow cards.
HALF TIME: ATHLETIC BILBAO 2-0 BARCELONA
What an eventful opening 45 minutes to this first-leg tie at San Mames! Two goals, a punch to the throat, five bookings and the strongest appeal for a penalty you'll likely ever see turned down - it has had a bit of everything. The bottom line is that Athletic Bilbao lead Barcelona 2-0 at the midway point, but if the last few minutes are anything to go by then this one is far from over just yet!
In an explosive first half of many talking points, it was the hosts who started the brightest and they were soon creating some openings in front of goal. Just two minutes had passed when Mikel San Jose got to a corner first to narrowly head wide of the target, though he should have been doing better from just five yards out. Bilbao's high pressing was causing all sorts of problems for their opponents, with one slack ball leading to a counter which Aritz Aduriz could only weakly head on target.
Gerard Pique did have a chance to head his side in front up the other end, but that proved to be a rare sight of goal for Barca who were struggling to get their famed forward trio on the ball in dangerous areas. A three-minute spell saw the game firmly swing in Les Leones' favour, with Aduriz pouncing on a stray Andres Iniesta pass and spraying it out to Raul Garcia, who returned the favour by picking out his teammate for a back-post header to open the scoring.
A stunning second was close behind, this time Aduriz turning provider by laying off Inaki Williams with a deft flick inside the box for a bullet of a shot past a rooted Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Then came a major flashpoint in the match when Aduriz deliberately caught Samuel Umtiti in the throat with his fist, leaving the French centre-back in agony on the floor. Umtiti was back on the field following some treatment and was quickly in the face of his opponent, leading to both players seeing yellow - two of five in the final five minutes of a first half that boiled over.
Barcelona ended the first half the stronger and they should have had a penalty when Neymar's legs were blatantly taken from under him by Xabier Etxeita, but the referee rejected the appeals on the stroke of the interval, just moments after Neymar had been denied from the visitors' first attempt on goal at the back post. Plenty for Barca to do in the second half, then, but will Luis Enrique make any changes?
ATHLETIC BILBAO SUBS: Elustondo, Eraso, Benat, Muniain, Susaeta, Mikel Rico, Arrizabalaga
BARCELONA SUBS: Masip, Digne, Mascherano, Andre Gomes, Rafinha, Turan, Alcacer
RESTART! We are back up and running at San Mames, where near enough straight from kickoff there has been another incident - Roberto getting caught in the face when jumping for a Ter Stegen clearance.
The big question ahead of this second half was whether Bilbao could keep up their high performance levels all across the pitch - the early stages suggest that they can probably do so. It will matter little if Barca's forward trio finally wake up.
Just short of 46,000 inside San Mames this evening, incidentally, all of whom are contributing to an intimidating atmosphere. A two-goal advantage could well be enough to see them though, although many would still back Barca to recover at Camp Nou.
Messi having such an average game at the moment, as he overhits the ball inside the box and sees half a chance disappear. Signs early in this first half that Bilbao will sit back a little more over the remaining 38 minutes or so.
GOAL! ATHLETIC BILBAO 2-1 BARCELONA (LIONEL MESSI)
Sixty seconds after getting slated by a certain person for an underwhelming game so far, Messi proves once more why he is considered as the greatest of all time. A brilliant free kick from the Barca ace catches Iraizoz off guard, but he so nearly recovered by palming the ball on to the bar. It came back down and was deemed to have crossed the line, making it game on!
YELLOW CARDS! Ander Iturraspe and Raul Garcia both shown yellow cards in quick succession to take the caution count to seven - all of those coming in a 15-minute spell either side of half time. Expect more to follow!
Pretty much for the first time tonight Barcelona enjoy a prolonged spell of possession, as they look to take control of the contest. This would not be the worst result in the world for the visitors, who will fancy their chances on home soil.
The front three just about starting to click into gear now, as Messi makes the most of a fortunate bounce and aims to play in Suarez. Just a tad too much on it in the end ad Iraizoz can pounce on the stray ball. Half-hour to go in the Basque Country.
It has been a very tough night for referee Fernandez Borbalan, who has already dished out seven bookings and is constantly having to blow his whistle following a succession of challenges. Play being continually broken up by Bilbao.
Bilbao still looking fairly dangerous but it is Barcelona who are looking the brighter when getting bodies forward. Neymar stays on his feet when he could have gone down, doing well to pick out Messi who sees his attempt blocked.
SAVE! Home fans furious as Barcelona opt not to play the ball out when an opponent is down and come close to scoring a second; Neymar denied from a long-distance curler only by a sprawling Iraizoz stop. Good attempt!
There is a risk of this one fading out, with both teams perhaps happy with the scoreline at the end of this first leg, but at the moment Barcelona and Bilbao are showing attacking intent. Still awaiting the first subs of the evening.
ATHLETIC BILBAO SUB! Not seen as much from Saborit as we have Inaki Williams and Aduriz, and he is the first player to make way - Muniain the man to come on in his place for these final 20 minutes of the first leg.
Muniain's first piece of action is to deny Suarez what would have been a tap-in at the end of a brilliant counter-attacking move. That was Barcelona at their best, but Bilbao were equal to it at the back to keep their lead intact.
BARCELONA SUB! Ivan Rakitic was shown some faith by Luis Enrique this evening but he has now been asked to make way for Andre Gomes. A good game for the youngster to come into, with his side being given some freedom to attack now.
RED CARD! It is a game that looked destined for a red card, and we have now seen one. Raul Garcia, booked 10 minutes into the second half, is cautioned for a second time when following through on Neymar. Big task for Bilbao now.
Still only the two shots on target for Barcelona in this second half, despite being on top for large parts and requiring another goal. Bilbao will surely now sit back for these remaining 12 minutes or so of normal time at San Mames.
Bilbao now having to play a more compact shape to prevent their opponents, who have a one-man advantage, finding gaps. Aduriz is replaced by Eraso, meaning that he pacey Inaki Williams will be utilised as the lone forward for the remainder.
CHANCE! Glorious chance for Messi, and one that he so often buries. The Argentine delayed his shot and was eventually thwarted from close range, before Neymar saw his shot blocked behind for a corner. Barca really knocking on the door now!
RED CARD! Well if Bilbao's task was tough it has now become even tougher - Ander Iturraspe is the latest to be shown a second yellow after catching Neymar late on. Les Leones will now likely put all eight outfield players inside their own box!
ATHLETIC BILBAO SUB! Williams is the third and final player to make way for Bilbao, replaced by Elustondo for these final four minutes or normal time. Expect four of five minutes to be added on by the overworked referee, too.
SHOT! Suarez takes on the shot early when spotting the keeper off his line, but it is easily collected by Iraizoz. The Uruguayan should have taken the extra touch, but that will unlikely be the last sight he has of goal at this rate.
Every last Bilbao player now back in the final third of the field. No attempt to play the ball out for a counter, instead booting the ball as high up the pitch as possible and keeping the compact shape intact. We are now into added time.
Just the three minutes of added time added on at San Mames, of which we have played two of them. Barcelona have a two-man advantage in these final throes, but the ball just will not fall nicely to them in a packed Bilbao box.
FULL TIME: ATHLETIC BILBAO 2-1 BARCELONA
Absolutely incredible scenes at San Mames, as Pique back-heels the ball to an unmarked Messi in the fourth minute of added time, but he can only fire it against the post. That sums up his night; it sums up Barcelona's night, too, as they failed to break down the nine men of Athletic Bilbao and now have work to do in six days' time in the return leg at Camp Nou. Can't wait for that one!
That concludes Sports Mole
's live text coverage of events in the Basque Country, but be sure to check out this on-the-whistle report
before heading off. We will have more Copa del Rey action for you next week in the return legs, so join us then!