Barcelona kept their six-trophy dream alive by edging a thrilling UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla on Tuesday night in Tbilisi, but they will have precious little time to enjoy their latest success. Less than 72 hours after holding their latest piece of silverware aloft, Luis Enrique’s team will kick off the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup at Athletic Bilbao.
Pedro’s late extra-time goal in the Georgian capital secured the Catalans their first trophy of the new season, adding to the Primera Division, Copa del Rey and Champions League crowns won in a glittering last campaign. Lifting trophy No. 5 of 2015, though, with the first leg taking place on Friday and return match to come the following Monday, promises to be a challenge of endurance as much as ability.
Athletic Bilbao, who were beaten 3-1 in the Copa del Rey final at the end of May, have a fine opportunity to capitalize after Barcelona battled for 120 minutes more than 2,000 miles away just three days before being welcomed to the San Mames.
It had appeared for large parts that it would be a much more comfortable night for the treble winners. After going down to an early deficit, Lionel Messi quickly struck home two superb free-kicks, before Rafinha and Luis Suarez put them into a commanding 4-1 lead. Yet, whether through complacency or fatigue, a succession of defensive blunders allowed Sevilla to mount a most unlikely comeback. It was left to Pedro, excluded from the starting lineup following claims from Barcelona’s technical secretary that he had asked to leave, to notch an emotion-laden winner.
The squad was elated, but it wasn’t until after 7 a.m. that they arrived back in Barcelona. The players will not return to training until Thursday. After a preseason that saw trips to California, Washington D.C., Florence and now Tbilisi, and in which Messi, Neymar and Dani Alves joined up late after taking part in the Copa America, it is hardly ideal preparation for the latest attempt to maintain their hopes of a trophy clean sweep.
For the first meeting in Bilbao, Barcelona will again be missing Neymar, with the Brazilian forward still sidelined with the mumps, as well as the injured left-back Jordi Alba. As for Pedro, his future remains up in the air. Since the final whistle, contradictory messages about both why he wasn’t in the starting lineup on Tuesday and what his intentions are regarding continuing with the club he joined at the age of 17.
In contrast, Athletic will have had more than a week to prepare for their attempt to gain revenge over Barcelona for their Copa del Rey defeat and land the Spanish Super Cup for just the second time in the club’s history. They also go into the contest with two competitive matches already under their belt, having come through a Europa League qualifier against Azerbaijan’s Inter Baku.
Athletic are fresh off a seventh-placed finish last season under Ernesto Valverde — a former Barcelona player who on more than one occasion has been close to taking the manager’s job at the Camp Nou. Remarkably in a summer where vast sums of money are being spent across Europe to reshape squads, Athletic have yet to spend or receive a single euro for a player.
But then Athletic are a club that has long bucked the trend. In the club’s 117-year history they have stuck steadfastly — although it has been relaxed ever so slightly in recent years — to a policy of fielding only Basque players. It is a boost then that, unlike previous summers, which have seen the likes of Ander Herrera, Fernando Llorente and Javi Martínez depart, there have been no major exits this time around. However, while highly rated French defender Aymeric Laporte has committed to a new contract despite reported interest from Manchester United, arguably the squad’s biggest talent, Iker Muniain, remains sidelined with a long-term knee ligament injury.
Prediction: Barcelona showed plenty of resolve to eventually come through and win the European Super Cup, and they will have to do so again if they are to avoid the need to overturn a first-leg deficit in the Spanish equivalent. Athletic were brushed aside by the brilliance of Barcelona’s front three in the Copa del Rey final, but they will not encounter a forward line in such incredible form this time around. Neymar won’t be there at all, and, after playing 120 minutes on Tuesday on the back of a shortened preseason, Messi surely won’t be at his peak brilliance. Athletic will know the match at home represents a real chance to stake a claim for a rare trophy. A victory should not be beyond a well-honed team, but they may have to settle for a draw.