Athletic Club have traveled to Athens, Greece ahead of their Europa League clash with Panathinaikos and are well aware that this will not be an easy opponent. The Greeks are strong, in good form, and don’t often drop points at home. The Lions have dreams of doing something very special in the Europa League this year and that means that will have to get a good result if they are to advance to the group stage. Kuko Ziganda has brought his strongest available players and this match is shaping up to be a must see encounter.
The Europa League continues to call to Athletic Club and on Thursday’s they will begin their pursuit of making it to the group stage of the tournament. Having seen off Dinamo Bucuresti in the third qualifying round, the Lions will now take on Greek giants Panathinaikos in the knock-out stage. Thursday’s match will take place in Athens, Greece with the return leg at the San Mamés one week later. The Basques know that they need a big result on the road to bring back home, but it definitely won’t be easy.
In the previous round the Lions drew 1-1 against Dinamo in Romania before cruising to a 3-0 victory at home in the return leg. Kuko Ziganda’s men have been in good form despite the season just beginning and they will need to be at their best to overcome the fans at the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium, as well as the Athens heat and humidity. Luckily, Athletic enter Thursday’s game relatively healthy. All starters, other than Yeray of course, have entered the call. Ander Iturraspe is still dealing with a muscle injury and missed out, as did Sabin Merino and a few other players.
Meanwhile, Panathinaikos is also in good form after defeating Gabala FC in their third qualifying round tie. The first leg took place in Greece and was won 1-0 by the home side, followed by a 2-1 victory on the road to book their place in the knock-out stage. Manager Marinos Ouzounidis will have a difficult decision to make as starting right-back Ousmane Coulibaly and backup Mattias Johansson will miss the match. Jens Wemmer is the only other right-back in the team, but the manager could choose to play someone else in that role.
When looking at this tie, the history is quite odd. For instance, Athletic has only played against Panathinaikos once before in Greece and that game ended in a scoreless draw. Additionally, Panathinaikos has a terrible record against Spanish opposition and haven’t won in their last 14 matches against a La Liga club. In fact, in their 27 total games against La Liga clubs, Panathinaikos have lost 17 times and only won three times. Still, history means very little and we all know that anything can happen in football.
There will be a couple of tactical battles to keep an eye on in this meeting. First, Panathinaikos will have to find a way to cover the right side of their defense will both right-backs missing. Iker Muniain can cause a lot of damage and the Greeks know they need to slow him down. The strongest option to fill in is starting left-back Niklas Hult, but with Iñaki Williams on the other side that may not be the wisest decision. Panathinaikos is a strong team but they have had problems defending the wide areas which is something that Athletic loves to exploit.
Meanwhile, Athletic will have their own hands full as they look to mark captain Zeca out of the game as much as possible. The 28-year-old is a complete midfielder and the engine that turns Panathinaikos in every way. He can create chances, score goals, and also provides a high defensive work rate. If Athletic is going to win this game they will have to find a way to keep Zeca from controlling the middle of the pitch and dictating play. Mikel Vesga is expected to start alongside Beñat once again and he may be tasked with keeping a close mark on the Panathinaikos captain.
One last area that could greatly affect the match is the atmosphere. Panathinaikos are notoriously difficult to play against at home and their fans create a loud and difficult stadium experience for visitors. Along with this, Temperatures could reach as high as 35 degrees on Thursday while also being extremely dry. That is a big difference from the recent weather in Bilbao and will be something that the players need to be ready for. In a recent interview, Oscar De Marcos said that everyone knows the importance of staying hydrated, but that can sometimes be easier said than done.
Choosing a favorite in this match is extremely difficult. For some, Athletic may be the better side on paper, but playing at the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium is extremely demanding. While Athletic fans will certainly be hoping for a victory on Thursday, the most important thing is getting an away goal and bringing a good result back home to the San Mamés. Kuko Ziganda isn’t expected to change up his starting lineup so fans should know what is coming from the Lions. If the Basques can control the midfield and possession they should be able to leave Greece with their heads held high.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Iago Herrerin, Oscar De Marcos, Xabi Etxeita, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel Balenziaga, Mikel Vesga, Beñat, Iker Muniain, Raúl García, Iñaki Williams, Aritz Aduriz