Athletic Club will play their final home game of the season on Sunday when they host challengers Leganes at the San Mames. The Lions will qualify for the Europa League with a win coupled with a Real Sociedad loss. This match will also be Gorka Iraizoz’s farewell match and the club will pay homage to him after the final whistle. Leganes has a lot to play for as well and they still need a point to escape relegation. The Basques have been nearly unbeatable at home this year, but that doesn’t guarantee anything on Sunday.Athletic will host Leganes on Sunday in their last home game of the season and there is a lot riding on this one. If the Lions can pull off a victory, coupled with a Real Sociedad defeat, they will officially qualify for the Europa League next season. However, Leganes still needs one point to guarantee their survival in La Liga. This will be their first game ever at the San Mames so it will also carry historical significance as well.
The Lions are coming off of a 1-0 loss to Alaves that stalled their four game winning streak. That game also saw Aymeric Laporte pick up a yellow card which means he is suspended for Sunday’s game. Also missing out will be Enric Saborit who has a muscle injury, while Mikel Balenziaga left training Thursday with a right ankle injury. These absences definitely put a lot of strain on the left side of Athletic’s defense so Ernesto Valverde will have to work some magic to protect that side of the pitch.
Eneko Boveda and Xabi Etxeita are the two options to stand in for Laporte but making a choice between the two won’t be easy. Boveda has played better this season, and more regularly, but Etxeita is more comfortable on the left side of the defense. If Balenziaga can’t go, Inigo Lekue will be expected to start at left-back. Balenziaga was included in the squad list so there is a chance that he could still start. With potentially two new players on the left side of the defense, there will have to be a game plan for limiting counter attacks and dangerous plays down that side of the field.
Leganes is coming off of a huge 4-0 victory over Real Betis in which they played arguably their best match of the year. They still need to earn one point to guarantee their permanence in La Liga so Sunday’s game is vital for them as well. Leganes will be without Unai Lopez and Iago Herrerin who are both on loan from Athletic and have clauses that prevent them from playing against their parent club. Still, Asier Garitano will field a strong squad looking to take something away at the San Mames.In the first meeting this season, these two sides played to a difficult 0-0 draw. That match was relatively dominated by Athletic, but they were not able to find the back of the net. On the other end, David Timor put in a man of the match performance by completely controlling the midfield and making it very difficult for the Lions to create any real scoring chances. Leganes will once again be looking to Timor to stuff the Basques’ creativity on Sunday. That first meeting took place without Benat and he will be the key to breaking down the middle of the pitch at the San Mames.
Athletic will also have to keep a very close eye on Alexander Syzmanowski who leads Leganes with seven goals this season. He normally plays on the left wing, which could help Athletic. The visitors could still focus more of their attacks down Athletic’s weakened side where Balenziaga may be absent. Leganes right-winger Omar Ramos hasn’t scored a single goal all season, but he has proven to be dangerous with the ball at his feet. Thankfully, Leganes has not been a very strong attacking side this year, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t cause problems for the Basques.
Interestingly enough, Leganes does have a pretty strong defense. They have only conceded 53 goals this season, which may sound like a lot, but is actually better than any other club in the bottom half of the table. The most interesting battle of the night will likely be Iker Muniain against former Athletic and Lezama right-back, Unai Bustinza. Those who remember Bustinza are aware that he does lack pace and can rush into challenges and commit fouls. If Muniain has a good night, he could cause a lot of problems out wide.
Sunday’s match is vitally important for both clubs which already makes this a difficult encounter. Add in the fact that Aymeric Laporte is suspended and Mikel Balenziaga is likely out and there is a recipe for an upset. Still, the Lions will be the stronger side and playing at the San Mames gives a major reason to trust that the Basques can pull off a victory. It is the last game of the year at home and the Lions have only lost twice all year in front of their own fans. With European qualification on the line, Athletic are favorites, but anything can happen in football.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Kepa Arrizabalaga, Oscar De Marcos, Yeray, Xabi Etxeita, Mikel Balenziaga, Mikel San Jose, Benat, Inaki Williams, Raul Garcia, Iker Muniain, Aritz Aduriz