Barcelona face Athletic Bilbao in crunch La Liga fixture


Barcelona face Athletic Bilbao on Saturday in their first away match since the departure of Lionel Messi.Ronald Koeman’s Barca beat Real Sociedad 4-2 last weekend despite the shock of seeing Messi leave for Paris Saint-Germain.The Catalan giants also are still without injured winger Ousmane Dembele and close-season arrival Sergio Aguero as they appear to rebuild despite being saddled with debt and only finishing third last season.Koeman did win his first major trophy as Barca boss last term, his side thrashing Athletic Bilbao 4-0 during a Copa del Rey final during which Messi scored twice.Martin Braithwaite stepped into the six-time Ballon d’Or winner’s shoes last Sunday by grabbing a brace, while Memphis Depay impressed on his debut after joining from Lyon.Koeman admitted after the convert Sociedad that other players in his team got to intensify without Messi — who scored 38 goals in his final Barca season.“We not have a player who can decide the fate of matches on his own — now it’ll be a collective effort,”

said the Dutchman.Instability at the Camp Nou is additionally rampant off the pitch, with president Joan Laporta on Monday saying the club’s financial problems are “worrying”.He revealed that Barcelona’s debts stand at 1.35 billion euros ($1.58 billion) which their wage bill is a minimum of 25 percent above their competitors at 617 million euros.Philippe Coutinho, among those high earners, wasn’t a part of the matchday squad against Sociedad and has been linked with a return to the Premier League — where he previously starred for Liverpool.Veteran centre-back Gerard Pique, who scored last weekend, could miss out with a calf problem against Athletic.Champions Atletico face ElcheAtletico Madrid took advantage of Barcelona and Real Madrid’s on-pitch woes to win La Liga for the primary time since 2014 last season and began their title defence with a 2-1 victory at Celta Vigo.Diego Simeone’s Atletico on Sunday welcome Elche to the Wanda Metropolitano, where fans are going to be present to celebrate their 2021 title triumph.Real have also seen many change within the close-season,

with coach Zinedine Zidane departing the club to get replaced by former boss Carlo Ancelotti.The long-serving defensive duo of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane have also left, for PSG and Manchester United respectively, although David Alaba are going to be expected to plug one among those gaps after his move from Bayern Munich.Ancelotti brought Gareth Bale back to the fold for a 4-1 thumping of Alaves last week when Karim Benzema, who is reportedly set to sign a replacement contract, netted a double.All the main target at the Santiago Bernabeu remains on the chase of Kylian Mbappe, who remains yet to agree a replacement affect PSG.This Sunday, though, Los Blancos are going to be bidding to continue their strong start at Levante.One to watch: Memphis DepayThe Netherlands international, alongside Antoine Griezmann, will need to shoulder many responsibility at Barcelona within the absence of Messi, despite having barely arrived in Spain.Depay’s last move to an enormous European club led to disaster as he left Manchester United in 2016 after scoring just two goals in 33 Premier League games.But he has enjoyed a fine spell at Lyon, where he scored 20 times in Ligue 1 last season, and will be able to intensify at the age of 27.Key statsThree: Wins for Levante in their last six matches against Real Madrid.Six: Consecutive La Liga victories for Atletico against Elche.17: Years since a team aside from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid won the title.


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