Barcelona boss Valverde aims to start season countdown in perfect fashion
Valverde will face his former club when Barcelona take on Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Ernesto Valverde wants his Barcelona side to enter the final stretch of the season with victory against his former club Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
The Catalan club still have a chance of securing a domestic treble: they top the LaLiga table by eight points with 10 matches remaining, are in the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla and face Roma in the Champions League quarter-finals.
Barca have only dropped four points from their 13 home league matches this season as they take on a Bilbao side who are still reeling from their Europa League exit to Marseille on Thursday.
However, Valverde, who ended his four-year reign in the Basque country to join Barca in the summer, is still expecting a tricky encounter at the Nou Camp.
He told fcbarcelona.com: “This will be a special game for me.
“They are an opposition who grow amidst difficulty. They are dangerous, because they have great spirit, and they are tough to play against whatever form they are in.
“There are an important three points at stake. We’re in the final countdown in the season, we have the international break and then there’s a tough April coming up.
“Practically our entire season is at stake now, and we have to start the final 10 games with a win.”
Valverde will have to deal with several absentees for the clash with Sergio Busquets set to miss out after coming off with a foot injury during their midweek Champions League victory against Chelsea.
Denis Suarez (groin) and Nelson Semedo (hamstring) are also sidelined and striker Luis Suarez is suspended.
The Barcelona boss is confident his side can claim maximum points, but admitted it is difficult to find another option for Busquets when the Spain international is unavailable.
“We’re down to the bare bones, but we are convinced that we can have a good game tomorrow,” he added.
“We’ve played games without Busquets, and we have other players who can help out, like (Ivan) Rakitic.
“We have sufficient alternatives, although Busquets is the best in the world in his position and it’s hard to replace him.”
Following Thursday’s 5-1 aggregate defeat to Marseille, Bilbao head coach Jose Angel Ziganda has seen his job come under scrutiny, but the 51-year-old feels there is plenty of time left in the season to eradicate their European exit, starting with a strong performance against the unbeaten league leaders.
Ziganda told the club’s official website: “We have to make a defensively perfect match against probably the best team in Europe and the world.
“The elimination was a disappointment. (I have) a clear conscience that the team gave their all and left their souls behind. From there on, there are 10 matchdays to go.”
Bilbao full-back Mikel Balenziaga could return to the starting line-up following a muscle problem, but midfielder Mikel Rico (hamstring) and forward Iker Muniain (knee) are ruled out with Yeray Alvarez (hamstring) also unlikely to take part.