Going into Friday’s match against Villarreal, Athletic Club had all the momentum in the world. The Basques were riding a solid winning streak and had won their last two matches away from home. The entire team was healthy and it just seemed destined that they were going to show up in a big way. A win would have seen them climb to 5th in the table, but it wasn’t to be. Villarreal managed to beat the Lions 3-1 and post a 4 point lead over them in the table.
Where did it go wrong for Athletic Club? Well, for starters the defense allowed too many holes for Villarreal to exploit. The Yellow Submarine thrives on spacing and using their speed and that is exactly what they did on Friday. In truth, the midfield is probably more to blame than the defense because they did very little to slow down the Villarreal transition and forced the backline to have to cover almost everything. Still, Athletic had their chances.
Finishing has been an issue for Athletic all season. Those woes seemed to have left over the last month, but they returned at Estadio De La Ceramica on Friday. It all started in the first half when Aritz Aduriz rose high to head the ball at goal. His effort beat the keeper but rang off the crossbar. At the time, it would have given Athletic a 2-1 lead and put momentum heavily in their favor. However, it wasn’t meant to be.
The second chance came with Athletic down 3-1 in the second half. It was Aduriz again who blasted a wicked shot from outside of the box. It looked like a desperate attempt at the time, but the ball struck the crossbar again. You could see the disbelief in the striker’s eyes, he just couldn’t believe he had been foiled again.
Minutes later Yeray put in a cross for Mikel San Jose who was mere feet from the goal. The midfielder tried to poke the ball into the goal with his outstretched foot, but all he could manage to do is tap it right to the keeper. He hung his head and covered his face not able to accept that his chance had been wasted. Again, disbelief filled the faces of the Lions. The last chance came with about seven minutes left to play when Oscar De Marcos found himself point blank with Andres Fernandez. He struck the ball at goal hoping to pull one back, but the big keeper was able to get a hand on the ball and parry it away.
Four great chances with nothing to show for it and another game full of “what ifs”. Had one of those chances gone in Athletic may have been able to find another to earn a draw, and yet they boarded the plane home to Bilbao empty handed. In truth, the loss cannot be blamed solely on the missed chances. The entire team played poorly and gave Villarreal too many chances of their own. Some would argue that Villarreal had their own misses that should have been scored, but then again others will cite the foul against in the box that wasn’t called when Adrian scored Villarreal’s third goal.
Sometimes it just isn’t your night and that is exactly what it felt like for Ernesto Valverde’s team. With seven games left on the calendar, Athletic will be looking to make up four points as they target the 5th place spot in the table. A 6th place finish will be good enough for them to return to the Europa League next year, but they face stiff competition from Real Sociedad. Regardless, as long as Barcelona defeats Alaves in the Copa Del Rey, the 7th place spot will enter the Europa League qualifying round. Still, Athletic doesn’t want to chance this and would rather finish as high as possible. If they are to realize that goal, they can’t have anymore games like this one.