Previewing Athletic Club vs. Real Betis
Athletic Club will need another big win on Thursday night as they look to keep pace with Villarreal in the battle for 5th place. The Lions have been absolutely stellar at home this season, which will make things very difficult for Real Betis. Ernesto Valverde will have his entire team available, but with a massive road game looming on Sunday, it may be time to rest a player to two. Regardless, the Txurrigorris know how vital three points would be and you can bet that they will be pumped up for this La Liga clash.This is yet another match that Athletic club desperately need to win. The Lions come into the game trailing Real Sociedad by two points for the sixth place spot in the table so a win would see them move back to where they want to be domestically. Ernesto Valverde’s side also brings great form into the game, having won their last two matches. On Monday, Raul Garcia scored a stoppage time volley to steal all three points from Eibar, so the Txurrigorris have a lot of momentum going in their favor.
Likewise, Real Betis are enjoying a good moment in their season. Los Beticos have also won their last two games, officially escaping relegation in the process. Victor Sanchez’s side currently sit 15th in the table but will be wanting to improve that in their final five games of the La Liga season. They will come into the San Mames with a lot of energy and ready to push their hosts.
As has been the case for a while now, Ernesto Valverde will have his entire squad available for Thursday night’s match. Mikel Balenziaga and Benat were both in danger of missing Monday’s game against Eibar but were cleared in time to compete at Ipurua. There is no one injured that will miss out, but it is unlikely that the same starting lineup will feature at the San Mames. After playing Monday, and with another tough away game early on Sunday afternoon, Valverde will need to rotate his team. During his press conference on Wednesday he refused to discuss who could be moved into the lineup, but it seems almost certain that at least one player will be rested.
Meanwhile, Real Betis will be getting back two key players in Jonas and Pezzella, who missed the last game due to suspensions. Despite the good news, Real Betis will also be without a pair of important injured footballers as well. Antonio Sanabria and Cristiano Piccini will miss the trip to Bilbao. Sanabria has been a deadly goal scorer since joining Betis and the team will miss the danger that he brings to the pitch. Standing in will likely be Joaquin or Alex Algeria, both of whom have scored three goals this season.There have been some entertaining matches between these two clubs over the year, but Athletic has had the upper hand as of late. The Lions have won four of the last six meetings, which includes a scoreline of 6-1 in the last two games at the San Mames. However, Betis did win the last meeting back in December by the score of 1-0 thanks to a goals from Ruben Castro. Athletic’s home form should play a big role on Thursday. The Basques have only lost twice at home all season and the San Mames has been absolute fortress. It will be a lot for the visitors to overcome.
Tactically speaking, this will be a very intriguing match. Real Betis’ 5-3-2 formation can cause a lot of problems, especially for a team like Athletic that likes to control the middle of the pitch. However, Los Beticos have struggled all year to defend on the wing which just so happens to be Athletic’s strong suit. The Lions love to get the ball out wide and work it back into the box in the form of crosses, set pieces, and through balls. If Betis continue to struggle out wide, Athletic could have a big night. The visitors have also struggled to deal with set-pieces over the last few months, so players like Benat could look to take advantage.
Meanwhile, the Athletic defense will have their hands full with Ruben Castro. The 35-year-old is still scoring goals in bunches for Real Betis and has netted 10 times so far this season. Castro has been a thorn in the side for the Basques in recent years and it will be up to Yeray and Aymeric Laporte to keep the veteran in check. If they can find a way to limit his chances in front of goal then things will be much easier for Athletic Club.
On paper Athletic Club is the heavy favorite for this match. Having a completely healthy team and playing at the San Mames gives the Lions a heavy edge, as does having something huge to play for such as qualifying for European competition. Still, this is La Liga football and that means anything can happen. Real Betis will come to Bilbao looking to win and upset their hosts. As Valverde recently said, Betis is playing well of late and can be very dangerous. It won’t be an easy game at all for Athletic Club.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Kepa Arrizabalaga, Oscar De Marcos, Yeray, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel Balenziaga, Benat, Mikel San Jose, Inaki Williams, Raul Garcia, Inigo Lekue, Aritz Aduriz