There are only three games remaining this season and there is still a lot to play for. Athletic currently find themselves in sixth place but are just one point off of Villarreal for fifth. There is also still a chance of qualifying for the Champions League but that will take a bit of luck. On Sunday the Lions will play their final Basque Derby of the season on the road against Alaves which Ernesto Valverde called the biggest game of the year during his pregame press conference.
“Sunday’s Derby is the most important game of the season. It is possibly the most key match there is. The results this weekend will not be definitive but they will hold much weight. For instance, Villarreal are playing at the Camp Nou and Real are on the road against Sevilla. Winning the Derby could mean a lot for us and be a step in the right direction. Regardless of the other results we have to win on Sunday. Everyone has been surprised by Alaves because they are newly promoted and reinvented themselves this season with new players. They have a competitive team, good players, and are playing in the cup final. They can score goals and play with deep wingers. I like the work of Toquero and Ibai that helps free up Deyverson. They are dangerous and can cause problems.”
Valverde went on to say that Alaves is a much different team from Eibar. He highlighted their ability to force turnovers and dictate the pace of the game as potential problems, but also said that this is a Derby which will never be easy.
“Alaves is going to press up the field and try to force turnovers. That is how they have had much success this season. Eibar is different because they play with more patience and try to have a rhythm instead of rapid pressure. We will try to take all three points like we need but is a Derby and they will want to win, especially in front of their fans. We will have to be armed and ready because they will not allow us space. Any result other than a win can hurt us badly. Hopefully we can make up points this weekend, but we have to win no matter the other results.”
Athletic has won their last four matches and is playing at a very high level. When asked about this form, Valverde stated that it will be difficult to keep going but that he knows his players will fight with all they have to keep earning points.
“We are in excellent and extraordinary form. We are playing well and with confidence throughout the entire team. It is difficult to keep this form going but we are ready to fight these last three games. Villarreal and Real have continued to earn points as well so it is a nice struggle. We are going to see who lasts longer, but we are used to it because we have been in this final sprint the last few years. We have a good team and we fight for every point. The regularity of the team is there and the commitment is too. We demand maximum effort every week and the players have responded.”
In closing, Valverde was once again asked about his future and refused to comment. He did, however, speak of how well he has been treated in Bilbao and they fondness the fans have shown him. He also took time to praise President Josu Urrutia, saying that his support is invaluable at the club.
“We will speak about news when there is news. Now isn’t the time to discuss my future, we are trying to wi games. I am very happy and pleased with the support that I have received here in Bilbao. I’m very content with the respect and support that I’ve received and I have definitely noticed it. I am not one for attention, but the fans have showed me fondness every day and that is appreciated. Our President is a rock and we need to be grateful for his support because it is incredible. It is the best thing that we have here and vital to the team. He gives stability to the club. There have been many good times but also bad times and he always stands behind us to give his support. I am very thankful for him.”
Athletic is unbeaten in Basque Derbies this season and will need to keep that going on Sunday. The Lions are looking to qualify for Europe for a fourth straight season but they definitely have competition. A win on Sunday could see them climb as high as fifth with only a three point gap from fourth place, but a loss could put a huge dent in their pursuit.