Barcelona ready for tackle busy, tough schedule in January

Barcelona ready for tackle busy, tough schedule in January
Barcelona ready for tackle busy, tough schedule in January
So far so good for Barcelona. At the end of the first half of the season, Blaugranas remain in the Top 2 in La Liga rankings having played a game less. In...

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So far so good for Barcelona. At the end of the first half of the season, Blaugranas remain in the Top 2 in La Liga rankings having played a game less. In the UEFA Champions League, the team next faces Arsenal in the pre-quarters and are also to the last-16 stage in the Copa Del Rey where they face Athletic Bilbao.

After facing city rivals Espanyol three times in 10 days, Barça may have wished to have been handed an easy draw. Lady luck was not on their side, however, as the draw pitted them against the red and white side from the Basque country. In 15 days, the Catalans face Bilbao thrice along with Malaga and Atletico Madrid, which is definitely not going to be an easy ride.

Barça must be wary of the threat posed by Bilbao as they were the team that stopped the Barça juggernaut from capturing a historic second sextuple. Though the 6-0 demolition on Sunday showcased Barça at their very best, the Basques were left with just 10 men early. Plus, the two legged ties against Athletic have always been tricky and unpredictable in the past.

Barça vs. Bilbao has always been a splendid affair. These are two of the most successful sides in the Copa Del Rey, with 27 and 23 trophies to their credit respectively. Barça defeated the Basques in last season's Copa final, but Bilbao got their revenge in style in the Spanish Super Cup, which makes the coming tie even more interesting. Both will have the urge to go one up and add a trophy to their illustrious trophy cabinet.

Sadly, there are bad news on both fronts. Luis Suarez is currently serving a two match suspension for supposedly provoking Espanyol players, which means he won't be able to play in the first leg. Jordi Alba is currently out injured with a hamstring injury. Lionel Messi is also under doubt after he was replaced at half time with discomfort in his hamstring, though it has been reported it is nothing too serious. 

Taking into account the way the Super Cup matches fanned out between the two sides, it will certainly be a physical battle which is likely to take its toll on the players. Barça boss Luis Enrique must properly rotate his players as doing otherwise would only increase their risk to injuries.

In the first leg due to take place at the New San Mamés, with injuries and suspensions playing their role, Luis Enrique will have to rethink his strategy and accordingly put it to plan.

In Aritz Aduriz, Athletic have the best header of the ball in the Spanish league, if not the whole of Europe. His ability to stretch defenders out of their comfort zone and get in spaces has not subsided with age, as proved by the hat trick he scored in the 4-0 demolition of Barça in the Spanish Super Cup. Fortunately for the Catalans, his partner in crime, Raul Garcia is currently ruled out through injury. However, highly-rated 21-year-old Iñaki Williams and Iker Muniain may also create problems with their pace and dribbling -- Barça defenders will have their hands full for the match.

In the last 20 games across all competitions, Barça have conceded a meagre eight goals while they have scored 61 themselves. That is a mind-boggling statistic and the team will be hopeful of carrying forward this momentum.

Now coming to the La Liga fixtures, this coming months may well be the toughest in this season's title defense. Playing Malaga away is always tough. Not to mention Atlético who are the league leaders at present. Gerard Pique is suspended against Malaga after picking up his fifth booking of the season. Neymar is one yellow away from suspension, so he ought to be cautious.

Last season Malaga were unbeaten against the Catalans and will be hopeful of repeating the same. Expect a match with a handful of goals from the match. Atletico on the other hand are on a roll. Sitting on top of the table, they will be aiming for the three points and be ahead on head-to-head as well. Antoine Griezmann is one of the top players around and, coupled with the best defensive record in the league, this may be the hardest fixture remaining so far.

Games like these decide titles. In a league where the top three are just separated by a few points, a win against Atletico would be quite vital and put them on top of the table with a game in hand.

Barça's quest for another treble is on the right track. Although the upcoming 15 days will pose a tough challenge, Barça have what it takes to safely negotiate their challenging schedule.

By Abhishek Das, columnist at Barçablog. Follow him on Twitter here.