Previewing Athletic Club vs. Espanyol

Athletic Club will be looking to move up to fifth place in the La Liga table on Tuesday when they host Espanyol at the San Mames. The Catalans can be a dangerous side and matches against the Lions have often turned into physical affairs. Ernesto Valverde’s side needs to be ready for a tough fight if they want to take all three points and continue their assault on the European zone of the table.

Raul Garcia

Raul Garcia in action against Espanyol (Image via La Liga)

Athletic Club is coming off of a huge 2-1 win on Saturday against Osasuna at El Sadar and looking to add more points in their pursuit for European competition. However, things won’t be easy with Espanyol coming to town on Tuesday evening. The Catalans have historically given the Lions a tough time and are known for their physicality on the pitch. If Athletic can match it, this will certainly be an intense game.

The Lions come into this match in sole possession of 7th place in the La Liga table, but they want more. Athletic’s goal is to finish at least one place higher, which would guarantee Europa League play next year. As the table stands right now, they are only one point off of their goal and only two points away from fifth place Real Sociedad. A win over Espanyol could see Athletic leap all the way to fifth if both Real Sociedad and Villarreal drop points in their Tuesday matches.

Meanwhile, Espanyol has yet to give up on the idea of playing in Europe next year. They currently sit 9th in the table, but are only four points off of Athletic’s 7th spot. That spot could be enough to see a berth in the Europa League next year as long as Barcelona wins the Copa del Rey against Deportivo Alaves. The Catalans are in a good run of form at the moment, having only lost once in their last six league matches.

Inaki Williams

Can Athletic continue their winning ways on Tuesday? (Image via La Liga)

For the first time in what seems like forever, Athletic will have their entire squad available. Yeray was the only player to miss the last match due to injury because of a double fractured nose he suffered last week while playing with Spain’s U21 side. Ernesto Valverde said in Monday’s press conference that the defender has recovered and is available to play. Despite everyone being available, there will be some changes to the lineup. The Basques just played on Saturday and have a huge game against Villarreal on Friday, so it is only natural that some players may get a rest. Regardless, they should still field a strong lineup at the San Mames.

Espanyol will be without two important players and that could impact this game. Leading scorer, Gerard Moreno, will miss the game due to injury while Jose Antonio Reyes will also be sidelined. With the two strikers on the shelf at the San Mames, it will be up to Leo Baptistao and Felipe Caicedo to lead the attacking line. Still, the Catalans will be dangerous.

Athletic hasn’t beaten Espanyol in league play since November of 2015. The last two meetings have ended with a 2-1 win for Espanyol last year and 0-0 draw a few months ago. Both matches took place away from the San Mames. Recent games between these two have gotten immensely physical. Espanyol are known for their physicality and Athletic players like Raul Garcia and Aritz Aduriz never shy away from that sort of challenge. Hopefully this meeting won’t end up in any rough or reckless challenges and you can guarantee that the referee will be looking to keep a lid on things.

Yeray

Yeray will return to the lineup against Espanyol (Image via El Correo)

For the Basques to win on Tuesday they will need to shut down Espanyol’s speedy forwards. Besides Moreno’s 11 goals, Pablo Piatti has netted 9 times and is a dangerous winger. The Athletic defense must first limit Espanyol’s counter attacks, but also use sound judgement of when to push forward and when to remain deep. Oscar De Marcos and Mikel Balenziaga will need strong games and cool heads if they are to hold off Espanyol’s speed. Also watch out for Yeray and Aymeric Laporte being pulled out of position. They will be the last line of defense and cannot allow themselves to drift too far from the center and give up chances. Midfielder, Victor Sanchez, also has a rich history of scoring against Athletic and will have his eye on goal Tuesday.

Athletic can get the best of Espanyol by simply controlling possession and being wise with the ball. Mikel San Jose and Benat could be the difference makers on Tuesday if they can pick apart the Espanyol midfield and allow the forwards to do what they do best. Espanyol will no doubt try to control the middle of the pitch with their physicality, so Benat must be ready to dictate play and pace for the Lions to remain in control and settled.

On paper, Athletic is the better side and will also receive a big boost by playing at the San Mames. The Lions have only lost two league games all year at home – against Barcelona and Real Madrid. Add in the fact that a win could see them jump as high as 5th in the table and there is plenty of motivation to put in a big performance. Espanyol are going to do everything they can to rain on Athletic’s parade, so Ernesto Valverde’s men must be ready for a fight.

 

Official Athletic Club XI: Kepa Arrizabalaga, Oscar De Marcos, Yeray, Aymeric Laporte, Enric Saborit, Ander Iturraspe Benat, Markel Susaeta, Raul Garcia, Iker Muniain, Aritz Aduriz

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