Athletic Club will travel to Ipurua on Monday night to take on Basque rivals Eibar in a match that promises entertainment. The Lions currently hold a three point lead over their neighbors in the La Liga table, meaning a win could be the final nail in the coffin for Eibar’s European dreams. Athletic is unbeaten in Basque Derbies this season and will need to keep that going if they want to finish in the top six. Ernesto Valverde is bringing his strongest squad for the match so the Txurrigorris will be in force.
Eibar has been one of the biggest surprises of La Liga this season. Since joining the Primera in 2014, the club has continue to grow and improve. Right now they are in contention for a top six finish, but first they will need to beat Athletic Club to stay in the fight. Athletic, on the other hand, would pull to within one point of 5th place with a victory at Ipurua. The Lions have been in tremendous form as of late and are unbeaten in Basque Derbies this season.
Athletic enters this match riding a high after beating Las Palmas 5-1 at the San Mames. They have won four of their last six games and have seen several players like Iker Muniain step up their performances in a big way. Apart from form, there is also another key fact backing the Lions in this one. Ernesto Valverde’s side is unbeaten in Basque Derbies this season. The game against Eibar will be their seventh Derby of the year and keeping that run going would play a huge role in qualifying for Europe once again.
Similarly, Eibar is also bringing incredible form into the game. Los Armeros did lose their last match 2-0 in a difficult road game against Real Betis, but before that they had gone five matches without defeat. Led by forwards Sergi Enrich and Pedro Leon, Eibar is a very dangerous team. The duo has combined for 20 goals this season, accounting for four goals in Eibar’s last five matches.
Ernesto Valverde will have his entire squad available and has called up all of his strongest players. There was concern that Benat and Mikel Balenziaga would miss out due to muscle problems, but both returned to regular training on Friday and were cleared to play. In his postgame press conference, Valverde said that both were ready to go and have no restrictions at all. Being without even one of the two would have been a lot to overcome, so having both available definitely helps Athletic a lot.
Meanwhile, Eibar will be without some key pieces in their lineup. Top center-back Florian Lejeune will miss out due to suspension, while Fran Rico, Nano Mesa, and Anaitz Arbilla are all dealing with injuries. Lejeune is, of course, the worst absence for Eibar being as he is the only starter missing out. Still, his leadership at the back is vital to the team’s structure and you can be sure that Ernesto Valverde will look to target that weak point.
Since earning their place in the Primera, Eibar has only managed to beat Athletic once. However, matches between the two have still been very tight and full of action. The last two meetings have gone strongly in Athletic’s favor with the Lions winning 5-2 at the end of last year and 3-1 in the first game of this season. Eibar did win 2-0 the last time these two met at Ipurua so there is reason to believe that Athletic could have their hands full, especially considering their poor form away from the San Mames during this campaign.
As far as matchups on the pitch are concerned, there are a couple of things to keep a close eye on. First, the battle between Iker Muniain and Ander Capa should be fun to watch. Capa likes to get forward and Muniain could use that to exploit holes in the back. Muniain and Inaki Williams have been incredible in Derby matches this year, scoring six goals and providing two assists. If they can keep up that form on Monday it could mean a big three points for the Txurrigorris.
More importantly, Yeray and Aymeric Laporte will need to keep Sergi Enrich and Pedro Leon at bay. The Eibar forwards can cause a lot of damager so the Athletic defense must be ready to deal with anything that comes their way. Lastly, Eibar midfielder Dani Garcia is playing at a high level and can take players completely out of games at times. Benat and Raul Garcia will be looking to get the best of him and that could be the difference in this match.
On paper, and according to Dani Garcia, Athletic are favorites going into this match. Still, the Lions’ road form and the fact that this is a Basque Derby means that anything can happen. If Athletic can keep the Eibar forwards quiet, they should be able to leave Ipurua with three points. With only six games remaining in the La Liga schedule, Valverde’s side needs every point they can get to ensure they qualify for Europe once again.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Kepa Arrizabalaga, Oscar De Marcos, Yeray, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel Balenziaga, Benat, Mikel San Jose, Inaki Williams, Raul Garcia, Iker Muniain, Aritz Aduriz