Though they sit just three points off the top in Spain’s La Liga and play a Copa del Rey quarterfinal match against a heavy underdog on Thursday, defending league champions FC Barcelona are suddenly facing a major crisis after the firing of Manager Ernesto Valverde three weeks ago. The fallout exploded into an open feud between the club’s athletic director and its superstar player, Lionel Messi, who is eligible to leave his longtime club in the summer due to a release clause in his contract, according to The Guardian.
Coming off a much-needed league victory over Levante UD on the weekend, the Blaugrana will need to somehow set the tensions aside when they travel to Basque Country to face one of Spain’s toughest home sides in Athletic Club Bilbao in the Cup quarterfinal.
Bilbao have lost only one game at their home ground and have allowed fewer goals at home than any team in la Liga, save the two Madrid giants, Atlético and Real Madrid, according to FC Barcelona.com.
Other than Barcelona, who have won the Copa del Rey 30 times, no team has won the Cup more often than Athletic Club with 24 titles. With the team now in ninth place on the league table, the Copa del Rey represents Bilbao’s one realistic chance at silverware this season.
Watch a preview of the Athletic Club Bilbao vs. FC Barcelona match, courtesy of Talk FCB, in the video below.
Despite the distractions facing the Catalan club and the continued absence of striker Luis Suarez who has formed one of Europe’s deadliest partnerships alongside Messi — and Athletic’s impressive home record — oddsmakers nonetheless see Barcelona as the heavy favorites to win the Cup quarterfinal, according to odds published by Bleacher Report.
The visitors have been given odds of 11-13 — almost even money — on a victory, while Bilbao stand at 37-10 odds. In other words, a wager if $100 would pay off a profit of $370 in the event of a victory by the home team.
Odds of a draw have been set at 13-5.
In their Round of 16 Copa del Rey match, Athletic Club needed a penalty shootout to get past second division side CD Tenerife, after a 3-3 draw in regulation time. But Barcelona had a much smoother time of it in their Round of 16 match, blasting five goals past Leganes, the 18th-place side in La Liga while keeping a clean sheet.
The Athletic Club Bilbao vs. FC Barcelona match kicks off at 9 p.m. Central European Time on Thursday at San Mamés Stadium in Bilbao, Basque Country. In the United States, where the match will be streamed live online by the ESPN+ streaming service, that start time translates to 3 p.m. EST. noon PST.