Athletic Club may have fallen 2-1 to Real Madrid on Saturday, but they will still go in to the international break in a pretty good spot. The Basques currently hold sole possession of 7th place in the La Liga table and are only 4 points off of the 5th and 6th spots. Technically, Athletic will still make it into the Europa League qualifying round in their current position as long as Barcelona wins the Copa del Rey and Celta Vigo doesn’t win this year’s Europa League. Still, the Lions certainly want to control their own destiny and they will have 10 matches to do just that.
During those final 10 matches Athletic will have a few difficult away fixtures; and they haven’t played well on the road the season. They will have to travel to face Villarreal, Eibar, Celta Vigo, and Atletico Madrid in the season finale and final game at the Vicente Calderon. Those four games pose a big problem, but the other six games are clearly winnable on paper. If Athletic can get a result off of Villarreal it will make matters even better.
Regardless of the difficult away fixtures remaining, their competition, Villarreal and Real Sociedad, have even harder games left to play. For instance, Villarreal still have to go on the road to play Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, and Alaves not to mention matches against Eibar Athletic. Real Sociedad may have the hardest remaining schedule. Having lost their last two matches, they will have to go on the road against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Celta Vigo. There is a lot of football left to play and it looks like it is going to be a tight finish.
Keeping in mind that Athletic can still qualify for the Europa League with a 7th place finish, they already control part of their destiny in a way. But if they want to avoid the qualification round, they need to overtake at least one spot in the table. Luckily for the Lions they are peaking at the right time. Ernesto Valverde’s side has only lost two games at home all season and were coming off a huge Derby win over Real Sociedad at the Anoeta before their meeting with Real Madrid. The players are in very good spirits at the moment and relatively healthy.
Aritz Aduriz and Oscar De Marcos made their returns to the starting lineups against Real Madrid and the only player that missed due to injury was Sabin Merino. The international break will give them the chances to get fully healthy and rest up before making that final push to climb the table. When the season began the players all said their goal was to qualify for Europe again and they are definitely on the cusp of that. In these final 10 games they must keep a strong focus on three areas.
First, Athletic needs to remain strong in defense. The Lions have been formidable at the back all year led by their trio of 22 year olds – Yeray, Aymeric Laporte, and Kepa Arrizabalaga. If they can stay in top form opponents will have a difficult time finding the back of the net. Secondly, the Lions need to find goals from someone besides Aritz Aduriz and Raul Garcia who have combined for 16 this year. The third player in line is Iker Muniain who has scored four.
Finally, Valverde’s team just needs to remain focused. Football is a game of details and losing attention to the little things can often cost you a game. This has happened more times this year than it should have and that needs to stop in this final run. Positioning, tackling, and finishing will be their key to making back to European competition next year. The squad and talent is there, they just have to make it happen.
In a recent interview, Laporte refused to give up hope that they could climb as high as 4th and make it back to the Champions League. While that may be nearly impossible at this point, it could still happen. It is good to see how positive the team is right now and it couldn’t be coming at a better time. Over the next two weeks the Lions should rest up and refocus so that they can end the year on a high note and guarantee that they will be back in Europe against next season.