With Inter Milan & Real Madrid coming, Barca need the three points against Athletic Bilbao

Athletic Bilbao v Barcelona, La Liga, November 21, 2009

Athletic Bilbao 9/2; Draw 3/1; Barcelona 1/2

The intimidating roar of San Mames awaits Barcelona in La Liga as Pep Guardiola’s side start a critical week of action with a testing trip to face Athletic Bilbao on Saturday night.

The league leaders are just a point ahead of arch-rivals Real Madrid, who host struggling Racing Santander also on Saturday, as the build up to next weekend’s El Clasico at the Nou Camp has already begun in earnest.

To complicate matters, the fixtures are now coming thick and fast for Barca, who have to host Inter Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday in a game where defeat could end the defence of their European crown. Currently in third place in Group F with five points, Barca’s Champions League hopes are nervously in the balance, and it will be difficult for Pep Guardiola to put his European anxieties on the back-burner this weekend.

Looking to ensure no slip-ups against Bilbao, Guardiola will likely field a strong line-up knowing how demanding it is to go toe-to-toe with Los Leones up north. Barca were fortunate to escape the international break without any significant concerns to their players as Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry (7/4 for either Messi or Henry to score first), Dani Alves, Xavi (10/3 to score), Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique (7/1 to score), Sergio Busquets all came through the international break unscathed. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (6/1 to score a brace) should also being raring to go having missing Sweden’s international get together over the past fortnight.

That said, Guardiola will be without the injured Eric Abidal while a doubt remains over Carles Puyol who picked up a knock while on duty with Spain. That could open the door for reserve left-back Maxwell (33/1 to score first) to get a rare run out, the Brazilian featuring only fleetingly since joining from Inter Milan in July.

Bilbao, currently eighth in La Liga, were hammered 4-1 (18/1) by Barca in the King’s Cup final last May as well as losing the Spanish Supercup at the start of the new campaign.

Manager Caparros must have been at two minds over the International break. His team has just started a run of back-to-back victories which he would have liked to continue without a two week break. But the benefit of the imposed recess has allowed time for key squad players to recover from injury, with Fran Yeste, Gaizka Toquero (10/3 to score), Aitor Ocio and Markel Susaeta all ready and fit to do battle against the Catalans.

Caparros will want his star striker Fernando Llorente (8/1 to score first) and Inigo Diaz De Cerlo (11/2 to score) to come out on top and earn him the three much needed points to closer to the top teams in the La Liga.

Barcelona have not lost to Bilbao home and away since 2006. That night Bilbao triumphed at home with a 3-1 win however Barcelona has since then beat Bilbao on eight occasions and only draw once.

101predicts: Athletic Bilbao 1 – Barcelona 2 (6/1)

Athletic Bilbao 9/2; Draw 3/1; Barcelona 1/2

Full match odds here.