Athletic Club will be looking to book their place in the Europa League group stage on Thursday when they host Panathinaikos at the San Mamés. The Lions have a 3-2 lead after the first meeting but know just how difficult this game is going to be. With Oscar De Marcos injured Kuko Ziganda will have to make some changes to the starting lineup, but the Basque giants are still favored to win the tie and advance to the next stage of the tournament.
Athletic Club will host Panathinaikos at the San Mamés on Thursday in the second leg of the Europa League knock-out round. After a dramatic 3-2 comeback win in Athens, Greece the Lions do hold an advantage entering the game, as well as three away goals which could prove to be the difference maker. Athletic also began their La Liga campaign over the weekend in a scoreless draw against Getafe, which could have some effect on Thursday’s encounter. Despite not scoring a goal the Basques put in a very strong showing and will be hoping to build on it against their visitors.
Like Athletic, Panathinaikos also began their domestic campaign over the weekend and played Platanias to a 1-1 draw on the road. The Greeks are expected to be a strong contender to win the league, but they also have their eyes set on a deep run in the Europa League. With only one able to advance, Thursday’s match is going to be huge for both clubs. Panathinaikos come into the game relatively healthy and should be able to feature their strongest lineup at the San Mamés.
After resting Aritz Aduriz, Mikel Vesga, and Xabi Etxeita over the weekend there shouldn’t be too many changes in the Athletic team from the last game. However, Oscar De Marcos will sit out Thursday’s match after picking up a Grade II left ankle sprain against Getafe. He will be sidelined for three to four weeks as a result. Luckily, Ander Iturraspe could be back in the squad after returning to training on Monday. The midfielder had missed several weeks with a muscle injury. Iñigo Lekue is expected to start in place of De Marcos.
The previous meeting between these two was a wild game. Panathinaikos was the stronger side for over an hour of play and Athletic had no answer. The Greeks were able to dominate the wings and pulled the Basque defense out of position several times. After going up two goals it looked like Athletic’s chances of reaching the group stage may be over. Then, with the substitution of Iñaki Williams, everything changed. In six minutes the Lions were able to score three goals and pull off the comeback. This time around things will not be any easier. The Greeks know they must win in the San Mamés if they are to advance and they have the quality to cause a lot of problems.
Athletic are in a good situation though due to the fact that they have three away goals and a 3-2 lead. Panathinaikos will have to win in Bilbao, but even then they will need to overcome the away goal deficit. In addition, the Lions have been nearly unbeatable at home for over a year which will make things even more difficult for the Greeks. Still, this is the Europa League and that means that anything can happen. Panathinaikos is a strong side and have already proven that they can nullify Athletic when playing at their best.
It will be interesting to see what changes Kuko Ziganda makes for this match. As mentioned earlier, Lekue is expected to start at right-back, but the rest of the squad could be relatively unchanged. Iñaki Williams will likely start over Markel Susaeta after coming off the bench in the first meeting, but there are two other positions that may be up for grabs. After a strong showing on Sunday, Mikel San Jose could be called upon over Mikel Vesga if the manager wants to utilize a more defensively focused midfield, but that remains to be seen. Also, Etxeita isn’t necessarily a lock to start alongside Aymeric Laporte as Unai Nuñez proved his worth against Getafe. No one is expecting the 20-year-old to start again, but it wouldn’t be a complete surprise.
On paper this a game that Athletic should win. They have a stronger squad, a nice lead from the first leg, and will be playing at home. In fact, a Greek club has never won a competitive match at the San Mamés so the Lions also have history on their said. That being said, Panathinaikos will be no easy team to overcome. They are used to playing in Europe every single year and will not go down without a fight. Both of these clubs were hoping for very deep runs in the Europa League this year but only one can continue on to the group stage. The season may have just begun, but Thursday’s match is a must win for Kuko Ziganda and company.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Iago Herrerín, Iñigo Lekue, Xabi Etxeita, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel Balenziaga, Beñat, Mikel Vesga, Iker Muniain, Raúl García, Iñaki Williams, Aritz Aduriz