Athletic Bilbao are through to the UCL group stage / PHOTO: MIGUEL RUIZ - FCB

Athletic Club of Bilbao are Saturday’s guests at the Camp Nou. The Basques are enjoying one the finest periods in recent history. Managed by former Barça man Ernesto Valverde, this is an exciting week for the ‘Lions’ as they prepare for their first appearance in the Champions League group stages since 1998. After beating Napoli (1-1 and 3-1) in the qualifying playoff, they now share a group with Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and BATE Borisov. That’s a group that they have every reason to feel confident about, and it all starts on Tuesday as they entertain the Ukrainians at San Mamés.

They lost 1-0 to Malaga on the opening day of the league season, but they can be forgiven if their minds were elsewhere. Qualification for the UCL was what mattered, and once that was sorted and they could turn their full attention to their league duties, they blasted Levante aside 3-0 to move up to seventh in the table.

It’s practically the same squad as last season. Ánder Herrera has left to form part of Louis Van Gaal’s new project at Manchester United, but otherwise there are been few changes, other than Aurtenetxe returning from a loan spell at Celta under Luis Enrique and Borja Viguera has been signed from Alavés

Eight regular starters

This season, a block of eight players has started every official fixture for Bilbao, namely Gorka, Laporte, Balenziaga, Iturraspe, Mikel Rico, Muniaín, Beñat and Aduriz. But with seven games to come in the next 23 days, as also have Barça, then now is perhaps time for Valverde to start thinking about rotations.

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