Barcelona boss Luis Enrique has admitted his side lacked consistency during the opening half of the La Liga season, but warned Real Madrid to not write them off for the title just yet. The Spanish manager urged his players to prove him right when Athletic Club Bilbao visit the Nou Camp on Saturday (4 February).
Luis Enrique has won back-to- back La Liga titles for Barcelona since taking over Gerardo Martino in the summer of 2014. However, the Catalans' hopes of retaining the domestic league gold this season have been dented by an inconsistent first part of the 2016-2017 campaign, having won only 12 in 20.
Last weekend's 1-1 draw at Real Betis left Barcelona four points behind Real Madrid – a gap that could be increased to seven as Los Blancos still have a game in hand.
But Luis Enrique pointed out that Barcelona also had ups and downs during the last two campaigns but overtook the Madrid sides with a strong finish to the season.
"If anyone wants to say that we will not win the league, let them think about the last two seasons. Until the end it would be possible for three or four teams to win the title," Luis Enrique warned.
"La Liga is about consistency and it's not where we have been at our best. We have to stretch ourselves to pick up points, always via our football philosophy. We are aware that the teams at the top of the table will continue dropping points. The last 10 gamedays will be key moments, but to make a prediction on who will be the league champion is going to be difficult."
The manager admits that Barcelona cannot afford to drop more points in the coming visit of Athletic Club, even though he is aware of the challenge Ernesto Valverde's side present.
"It is going to be a difficult game, like every match against Athletic Club, especially due to their idea of pressing high. From here, a lot of spaces can appear and we have to take advantage of them. We have to be very switched on," he added. "There are teams who cause us problems by sitting back. It depends on many different things but Athletic will put us under pressure high up the field."
Luis Enrique added that the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg with Atletico Madrid just three days later makes the clash with the Basque side even more difficult. However, the Barcelona boss has rotated his squad to arrive fresh for the last part of the campaign and backs his side to cope with the demanding fixtures as they fight for the treble.
"Playing every three days is very demanding physically for my players, they only have two days to recover. However, that is something we have to live with if we want to chase three trophies," Luis Enrique admitted.
Barcelona could be boosted by the returns of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Lucas Digne as the trio were back in training on Friday and should be back available to face Athletic Club or Atletico Madrid.
"In theory, they are back with the squad. They trained today [Friday] and now we await the verdict of the medical staff. It's great news to be able to have players back after injury," Luis Enrique said.