It has been a few weeks since Sabin Merino officially returned to training after being medically cleared. The forward had missed over one month of action due to injury and it was good to see him finally healthy again. However, despite training normally he has yet to see any minutes. In fact, Merino wasn’t even called up for the last couple of game, but was back on the bench during Friday’s 5-1 win over Las Palmas. With only six games left to play, will Merino even see the field again this season?
Merino’s situation is eerily similar to that of Ibai Gomez last year. Gomez missed several months with a knee injury but came back at the end of the campaign after being cleared. Even though he was available to play, he did not feature for a single minute and was allowed to leave for free over the summer to join Alaves in order to seek regular minutes once again. Could Sabin Merino be headed down the same path.
There are a few similarities in their cases. For instance, Valverde chose to not put Gomez back on the pitch because he had missed so much time that he could have been a liability. That looks to be what is happening with Merino. Also, there was coverage to replace Gomez in the team, which could also be said for Merino, especially if Alex Berenguer is signed this summer. Valverde could decide to send Merino on loan next season in order to get his rhythm back, but every situation is unique.
There are also several differences to take into consideration when comparing the two. For instance, Gomez’s injury was a significant knee injury that saw him miss several months at one time. Merino has also missed a lot of time dating back to last season, but there has not been anything major. Perhaps Athletic could take solace in the fact that Merino has been able to come back from each injury with little drop off in production.
The second difference involves the players themselves. Gomez featured solely as a left-winger, a position that there was plenty of depth for at Athletic. Meanwhile, Merino is capable of playing on the wing and as a striker. His versatility could allow him to still have a role in the team once healthy again. Merino is also a younger player than Gomez which could contribute to the desire to keep him in the team.
At the end of the day, the biggest difference is who the player was before injury. When Ibai Gomez went down, he was already a fringe player that was slowly losing his place in the team; to Sabin Merino of all people. Merino, on the other hand, has been an up and coming young forward who has shown the ability to score goals and have a real impact on a game. Gomez was edging closer to the door before his injury, while Merino was moving more towards the starting lineup. That is the major difference between the two.
Sabin Merino’s place in the squad looks safe for now. As long as he can stay healthy he will likely retain his role for the upcoming season. However, if someone like Asier Villalibre or a new signing like Berenguer shows up and makes a push, Merino could see even fewer minutes. The Lezama graduate proved last season that he can be an important player for Athletic and it is now up to him to solidify that belief. In the end, Valverde, or whoever is the manager next year, will have to make a decision on Sabin Merino. It is highly unlikely that he will leave the club this summer, but stranger things have happened. If the Lezama graduate wants to remain at his boyhood club, he has to prove that he still belongs.