Barcelona's league-leading defense to face test at Bilbao
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Rather than depending on goals alone, Barcelona has been relying on its defense this season.
The surprisingly strong back line has put the club on course to reclaim the Spanish league title, and its next test comes on Sunday when Barcelona visits Athletic Bilbao.
Barcelona striker Robert Lewandowski has missed two games with a left leg injury and has yet to be cleared to play, although local media reports say he could be available for the game at San Mames Stadium.
With or without the league’s top scorer, Barcelona will aim to produce another staunch defensive turnout at a Bilbao team that gives most visitors a tough game with its up-tempo style of play.
Barcelona is nine points ahead of Real Madrid and eyeing its first league title since 2019, largely thanks to its defending.
Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has 18 shutouts in 24 matches and the team's eight goals allowed leads the league. Madrid’s 18 goals allowed is the next best.
While the German goalkeeper is playing his best in several seasons, not many opponents are finding holes in a defensive line that has proven to be the team’s biggest improvement since midfield great Xavi Hernández took over as coach in November 2021.
The arrival last year of Jules Koundé from Sevilla and former Chelsea players Andreas Christensen and Marcos Alonso has added depth, strength and some much-needed height to a Barcelona defense that over the previous decade preferred finesse passers at the back. The team has not missed veteran player Gerard Piqué at all since his surprise retirement in November.
The newcomers have joined up with the versatile Ronald Araújo, Éric García and youth player Alejandro Balde, who has displaced Jordi Alba as Xavi’s first-choice left back, to make the league’s most formidable defensive unit.
Xavi, however, won’t have the suspended Araújo, his best one-on-one defender in open space, available against a Bilbao attack led by Nico and Iñaki Williams. The Williams brothers have scored a combined 12 goals his season, while attacking midfielder Oihan Sancet leads Bilbao with eight goals.
Araújo received a direct red card in last weekend's 1-0 win over Valencia when he fouled a player with only Ter Stegen to beat. Koundé will likely replace him at right back, although Xavi could opt for veteran Sergi Roberto.
Barcelona has earned a pair of 1-0 victories without Lewandowski. Araújo excelled in a win over Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinals before the league win over Valencia on Sunday.
Midfielder Gavi will return for Barcelona after a one-game suspension.
Madrid hosts Espanyol on Saturday in a match that should serve as a warmup for next week's Champions League game against Liverpool.
Madrid hosts the English team on Wednesday with a 5-2 advantage from the first leg of the round of 16. The defending champions will then visit Barcelona on March 19 in a “clásico” that will have an impact on the Spanish title chase.
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Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press