Previewing Alaves vs Athletic Club
Athletic Club will play their final Basque Derby of the season on Sunday when they travel to the Mendizorroza to face off with Alaves. The Lions have yet to lose a Derby and win on Sunday would bring them to within one more win of qualifying for the Europa League. This will be a special game for everyone due to the fact that several players have represented both clubs and the deep history between the neighbors.
Athletic Club has won four straight matches and will be looking to keep that excellent form going on Sunday when they travel to take on rivals, Alaves. Over this winning streak the Lions have managed to score eleven goals while conceding only twice. Ernesto Valverde said himself that this is an unbelievable run and that his players will fight to keep it going. Athletic has another impressive streak coming into Sunday as well because they have yet to lose a Basque Derby this year. Alaves will be their final Derby clash and it promises to be an intense one.
When the season first began no one really would have viewed Alaves as much of a challenge for a club like Athletic. However, the team has reinvented itself since being promoted back to the Primera and has played at a high level all year. They are currently tenth in the La Liga table and will be playing against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final at the end of the year. No one can take this team for granted anymore and they have really embraced the title of underdogs. Their 4-1 victory over Real Betis last weekend showed just how deadly they can be when at their best.
It is difficult to take an in depth look at the history of these two teams due to the lack of matches. Earlier this year they played to a scoreless draw at the San Mames and their last meetings before that took place in 2011 and 2006 respectively. Interestingly enough, Athletic hasn’t beaten Alaves in a meaningful game since way back in 2003. The fact that this is a Derby makes it even more intriguing, especially for Alaves. Players who have grown up at the club have always spoken about the desire to play against Athletic. Now, they will have their chance in front of their own fans. As Athletic right-back Oscar De Marcos recently said, “Alaves has been looking forward to this game since the beginning of the season”.
As has been the case of late, Ernesto Valverde will have his entire team available. After playing three games in six days, the squad has had an entire week to prepare for this game and it is expected that the first choice lineup will feature. There is a chance that Valverde could opt for a tactical change in the lineup by starting someone like Inigo Lekue, but it just makes more sense to start the strongest lineup and let them dictate the pace and play of the game.
Alaves will be able to field their strongest lineup as well, meaning their dangerous counter attacking unit should be on the pitch at the starting whistle. The team of Ibai Gomez, Victor Camerasa, Gaizka Toquero, and Deyverson have played very well together this season and are known for being able to drift in and out of positions to make things really difficult for opponents. Likewise, Marcos Llorente should be in the starting lineup and he has arguably been the team’s best player due to his ability to win back possession and dictate play in the middle of the pitch.
As far as tactical battles go, Alaves will have to overcome some weaknesses if they are to take points off of their visitors. The home side has struggled to deal with set pieces this season and haven’t been able to keep possession of the ball for extended periods of time. Athletic is one of the most dangerous teams in La Liga at set pieces and have proven to be deadly when winning the ball back in midfield. If Alaves can’t overcome these issues it will be a long night for them.
Likewise, Athletic has some work to do because they will need to keep the Alaves forwards in check. The Lions have been known to cough up chances when facing counter attacks and that just so happens to be Alaves’ favorite way of attacking. The team likes to play with their wingers deep to pick up the ball around the midfield and play it forward quickly on the counter. If the defense loses focus for even one second their hosts could make them pay in a big way.
No matter the outcome, this will be a special game. Athletic Club and Alaves have a lot of history and there are players on both sides that will be happy to participate in this match. Oscar De Marcos, for instance, grew up at Alaves before joining Athletic Club. Alaves forwards Ibai Gomez and Gaizka Toquero crossed the divide after playing in Bilbao for several years and will have the chance to take on their former team. Basque Derbies are always difficult matches, but this one carries a more unique feel.
Athletic Club will be favorites on paper, but that means very little in a Derby. Their four game winning streak has the Lions in fine form and that shouldn’t really change, especially with a week to recuperate. Additionally, Athletic’s away form has improved quite a bit over the last few months and will play a big role in their final stretch of the season. If Ernesto Valverde’s side can impose their style and control possession they should be able to walk away with three points and be one more win away from securing Europa League play next season.
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