Athletic Bilbao face Barcelona in King’s Cup last 16

Bilbao (Spain), Jan 4 (IANS) FC Barcelona and Athletic Club Bilbao are expected to play one of the most attractive football games of the last 16 in the Spanish King’ s Cup when they meet at the San Mames Stadium for the first leg clash here on Thursday night.

The tie is a repeat of the 2015 Cup final which Barcelona won 3-1 in their own Camp Nou stadium and also of last season’ s quarter-final in which the Catalans also progressed, reports Xinhua.

However, Athletic supporters will remember the 5-1 victory over Barcelona which kicked off the 2015-16 season with them winning the Spanish Supercup, the club’ s first trophy in over 30 years.

With Barcelona’s south American stars only returning to training on Tuesday after their Christmas holidays, Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique could be tempted to rest some or all of his attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

To this decision, Athletic coach Ernesto Valverde, jokingly commented in his pre-game press conference that he would not object to it.

“We have to face one of the best sides in the world, if not the best in the world and we have to do our best against them,” said Valverde, who added that “nothing is pre-ordained in football”.

The man who many believe could replace Luis Enrique at the Camp Nou next season has to contend with injuries to key players in the Athletic squad. Midfielder Benat Etxeberria is struggling to be fit to start while Oscar de Marcos is recovering from a foot injury and young central defender Yeray Alvarez is out for the long term after undergoing an operation to remove a testicular cancer on December 27.

Before the Christmas break Barcelona were looking as if they had returned to their best form with the return of midfield talisman Andres Iniesta from injury.

But with Barcelona facing a difficult must-win contest against Villarreal in the La Liga on Sunday, it will be interesting to see who plays and who doesn’t.