There are only four games remaining in La Liga this season and Athletic Club needs a big win on Sunday. The Lions could move back to within one point of Villarreal with a victory over Celta Vigo who will be resting players ahead of their Europa League clash with Manchester United later in the week. Still, this will not be an easy game for the Basques who have struggled away from the San Mames.
The pressure is on yet again for Athletic Club who come into this game currently sitting seventh in the league table. The Lions are in immaculate form, however, having won three straight games and seven of their last nine. There is a lot of energy and excitement in Bilbao right now coming off of a big 2-1 win over Real Betis and that will provide plenty of morale on Sunday. If they can find a way to win in Vigo, they will move to to within one point of Villarreal for fifth place.
Meanwhile, it has been a spectacular season for Celta Vigo who will playing Manchester United on Thursday in the semifinals of the Europa League. That will certainly have their attention, but they can’t afford to ignore the Lions. Despite the great form in Europe, Celta has not been able to replicate that domestically. They currently find themselves eleventh in the table and have lost their last two games in league play.
Historically, these two clubs have played many exciting games, but Athletic has the upper hand over the past few years. The Basques have won the last four meetings in La Liga play, winning every time by one goal. In fact, the Lions have won the last three games in Vigo, where they haven’t lost since 2013 in the Copa del Rey. Balaidos is not an easy stadium to play in, but Athletic has somehow managed to give Celta a lot of problems on the road.
Coming into the game, Ernesto Valverde had his entire squad to choose for. Though he called up his strongest squad, the team has already played two games this week which means that not everyone will be fresh. During his pregame press conference on Saturday he refused to tip his hand on who would rest, leaving many questions about what the starting lineup would look like. The Basques will not be in action again for seven days so there may not be any changes at all.
While Athletic will be fielding a very strong lineup, Celta likely will be without several key players. According to reports, Eduardo Berizzo is expected to rest the likes of Iago Aspas and others due to the upcoming game against Manchester United. The club has already guaranteed their place in the Primera next season and cannot achieve a top seven finish, so if they want to play in Europe next year they must win the Europa League. The absence of important players will certainly help Athletic, but Ernesto Valverde has warned his players of thinking it will be an easy game.
It is difficult to break down tactical battles without knowing who will be sitting for Celta. Still, a lot can be understood from the way these two clubs play football. To begin with, Celta has struggled a lot this season with aerial balls and set pieces. This is one of Athletic’s strengths and you can expect that Benat will get several dangerous looks from just outside the box. Aritz Aduriz is a deadly target man and Celta will have to mark him closely to keep him off the scoresheet.
Celta has also found it difficult to limit chances created by wingers which is something else that the Basques can take advantage of. Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams are both fast footballers who can make magic with the ball at their feet. Look for the Lions to attack from out wide and test the Celta fullbacks every chance they get. It will be vital for the Athletic midfield to control play if they want to break down the Celta defense and they can’t afford to get caught up in the speed of the game and try to counter attack. Valverde’s players need to play the Athletic way, which will cause plenty of problems for their hosts.
Athletic are favorites for this match for several reasons. First, Celta will be missing a few key players which already puts them behind from the start. Also, Athletic’s style of play is the exact what Celta struggles with which means the Lions should be able to control this match from start to finish. Regardless of how this game looks on paper, Athletic has struggled away from home this season and you can never predict what will happen in La Liga. A win would see Athletic climb back to within one point of Villarreal, making this a must win game. There are only four matches remaining on the calendar and every point is vital now.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Kepa Arrizabalaga, Oscar De Marcos, Yeray, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel Balenziaga, Mikel San Jose, Benat, Inaki Williams, Raul Garcia, Iker Muniain, Aritz Aduriz