Athletic Club face off with direct rivals, Villarreal, on Friday at Estadio De La Ceramica in yer another must win game. A victory would see the Lions leap over the Yellow Submarine for 5th place in the La Liga table, while anything else could see them drop as low as 7th depending on other results around Spain. Ernesto Valverde’s side will certainly be up for the task in what is already being pegged as one of the biggest game of the weekend.
To quote Ernesto Valverde, “Matches against Villarreal have become a classic”. The Athletic Club manager is exactly correct in his assessment. Both La Liga clubs have been very close in terms of standings and results over the last few years and are once again directly competing with each other in the table. Right now Villarreal hold a one point lead over Athletic for the 5th place spot in the table, but the Lions have come on strong as of late. On Friday they will face each other directly at Estadio De La Ceramica in what will be a huge game in determining where both finish the season.
Athletic come into the game riding a high. The Lions have won both of their matches since returning from international duty, and four of their last five. After severely struggling on the road this season, Athletic have won their last two games away from the San Mames and want to make it three in a row against Villarreal. Valverde’s side is also completely healthy and will be able to field a very strong lineup against their direct rivals.
Villarreal enter the game trying to make up ground that they recently let slip away. The Yellow Submarine had lost two straight games before finally taking three points against Real Betis on Tuesday. With the losing streak behind them, Fran Escriba’s side are starting to feel like they are at their best again and could create a lot of distance between themselves and Athletic with a huge win.
Both sides will be able to feature their strongest lineups which makes this game even more mouth watering. In the past, these two rivals have been able to keep things clean and respectful and there is no reason to believe that that will change on Friday. Regardless, the game will be intense and neither side will give up anything easy as long as they can help it.
There will be several tactical battles to keep a close eye on. First, Bruno Soriano against Benat will have a major impact on the game. Bruno is the glue that holds everything together for Villarreal and his ability to control the game from the middle of the park is vital to their success. Meanwhile, Benat is engine that turns Athletic’s gears. If the midfielder isn’t able to create chances and pull the strings, it will be a long night for the Lions. When Benat plays poorly, Athletic plays poorly. It’s as simple as that.
The other battles to watch consist of both attacking lines and defensive units. On one side, Roberto Soldado and Cedric Bakambu are blazingly fast for Villarreal and love to run into space. Yeray and Aymeric Laporte will have their hands tied trying to keep these two in line, so do not be surprised if Mikel San Jose drops deeper than usual to give some extra coverage. On the other side, the Villarreal defense is solid. They have only surrounded 23 goals all season, fewer than any other club in La Liga. Aritz Aduriz and Inaki Williams will be looking to break down the wall and you can bet that Raul Garcia will be doing everything he can to help them get behind Bruno to set up chances.
Athletic hosted Villarreal earlier this season at the San Mames and were able to pull off a tight 1-0 victory. The lineups from the first meeting shouldn’t look all that different on Friday for round two. Villarreal hasn’t beaten Athletic since September of 2015 when they won 3-1 at home. Since then Athletic has won twice and drawn once with only two goals being scored over the three meetings. When these two clubs face off it is always a tight affair and Friday promises more of the same. There is nothing to separate the two on paper. Both have strong squads and a lot to play for, so be sure to tune in!
Projected Athletic Club XI: Kepa Arrizabalaga, Oscar De Marcos, Yeray, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel Balenziaga, Mikel San Jose, Benat, Inaki Williams, Raul Garcia, Inigo Lekue, Aritz Aduriz