Athletic Club will play their final game of the season on Sunday when they travel to take on Atletico Madrid. The Lions need a win to guarantee their place in next season’s Europa League, but that is going to be very difficult to achieve. Atletico will be saying goodbye to the Vicente Calderon and will surely put up a fight in front of their own fans. Ernesto Valverde took the time to speak to the media after training on Friday and said that it is going to be a difficult game even though Atletico will be without key players.“This is a test of fire for us and I don’t expect them to lose their tension and intensity. We are a historic rival so it will be difficult. It is the last match in La Liga and our destiny will be decided in a match between two historic rivals. Let’s hope the match isn’t too much for us. They do have important players missing. Godin is key for them and can be dangerous from set pieces, and Felipe Luis is fundamental to their left side. He is the best in the world. I don’t know how they will overcome it, but their team is made up of high caliber players so they will still be very strong.”
Valverde went on to say that he thinks Athletic has been playing very well. He also mentioned that Atletico’s forwards can cause a lot of problems if not kept in check, highlighting Antoine Griezmann as someone who has historically wreaked havoc on Athletic.
“We have been playing well, very well. It’s true that we did not get the result we deserved against Leganes. We tried to control the game, but sometimes you have a bad day. Our intention is to test their defense, but we must also take their forwards into account. They have an advantage with Griezmann, Torres, and Gameiro who are all very dangerous. It can be misleading because you can dominate a game, but your opponent can make a decisive move and change the match. We have to watch out for Griezmann because he has scored a lot against us.”
Of course, Valerde was soon asked about the reports that he has a contract in place to take over at Barcelona and that it includes a back-out clause. The manager refused to discuss the rumors, saying that he will not think about his future until the current season has come to a close.“I will not say anything. The rumors, resignation clause, anything. Look…Sunday is the last game of the league and it is time to compete and win our place in the Europa League. The time to think about the future and make decisions is next week when the season is over. Information keeps appearing on one site or another, but now isn’t the time to make decisions about the future. Is this my last game at Athletic? My concern is the last game itself. We have a game that we need to win and my goal is to qualify for Europe. My goal is to win games here and help the players win. When I came here it was a delicate situation, but I knew the team from afar. I did not expect this path to be so good, I won’t deny that. So far I think my time here has been a success, we’ll see later.”
If Athletic cannot take all three points against Atletico, they will be relying on help from other matches across Spain. Villarreal and Real Sociedad will also be playing difficult games and their results could directly influence whether or not Athletic qualifies for Europe.
“Villarreal have a derby and Real will not have it easy either. We have the strongest rival to overcome. We could finish anywhere between fifth and seventh. It is a shame that we missed out on the chances these last two games. We will wait and see tomorrow if Inaki Williams can complete training and we will wait for Balenziaga as well. Raul Garcia has affection for Atletico, but he’s ready for anything. He’s going to fight for Athletic, it’s what he always does.”In closing, Valverde took a moment to praise goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga who, on Friday, was called up to the Spain National Team. The manager says that the 22-year-old has become fundamental to Athletic’s success and that his presence gives the defense security.
“Kepa has been spending the preseason with the first team for four years and this year he entered the team and played very well. He hopes to keep progressing and improving and I think he has demonstrated his great maturity. This is a prize and recognition for his hard work and we hope he is at the club for a long time because he has become fundamental for us. The players themselves have earned their call ups. He has had great moments with theU-21 team and now he is ready for more. He gives his teammates security and they feel his presence.”
Sunday’s game will be very special for many reasons. Atletico will be saying goodbye to their stadium, Athletic will be playing for Europe, and Raul Garcia will get to compete against his former team. Both sides have a lot to play for and this is a historic rivalry as Ernesto Valverde mentioned. Whatever the result, this match will be an intense and enjoyable one to end the season.