Athletic Club is looking to get off to a strong start in the Europa League group stage on Thursday when they will travel to Germany to take on Hertha Berlin. Kuko Ziganda’s side is off to a flying start this season and will be coming into this game with plenty of confidence and belief that they can take all three points. For that to happen it will take a strong showing from everyone involved and the Lions believe that they are up for the challenge.
Athletic Club’s road to European glory begins with a trip to Germany this Thursday. The Lions will be playing the first match of their Europa League group stage against Hertha Berlin in what is, on paper, the toughest opponent in Group J. That being said, Kuko Ziganda’s team comes into this match with plenty of confidence after a brilliant start to the new year. So far the Basques have played in seven games and have yet to be beaten, earning five clean sheets along the way. The players have been very vocal about the fact that this is a huge game and fans will see that when the opening whistle is blown.
On the other side, Hertha enters the match in a good situation as well. The Germans started off their league campaign with a 2-0 win over Stuttgart before being defeated 2-0 the following week by Borussia Dortmund. After in the international break, they played Werder Bremen to a 1-1 draw at home and currently sit ninth in the Bundesliga table with four total points. With three goals scored and three goals conceded it has been a very balanced effort from the Germans who are excited to host Athletic at the Olympiastadion on Thursday.
Kuko Ziganda had some tough decisions to make in regards to the squad for this match, and chose to leave behind some key players. Beñat, Ander Iturraspe, Sabin Merino, and Unai Nuñez have all stayed in Bilbao after featuring on Sunday, further showing the manager’s dedication to his rotational policy. The rest of the lineup could remain relatively unchanged, although it is really difficult to predict at the moment. Iago Herrerín should continue his role as the cup keeper, while Xabi Etxeita and Mikel Vesga are expected to start in place of Unai Nuñez and Beñat respectively. Other than that there could be some alterations, but fans will have to wait and see what Ziganda has planned.
If Athletic is going to win this match they must first be able to overcome the Olympiastadion. Last year the Lions played terribly away from the San Mamés and cannot afford to let those same issues creep back up now. The only two matches in which Athletic have conceded goals this year were both Europa League games on the road, which is important to keep in mind. The trip to Germany will be, by far, the shortest trip of all in the group stage so they must take advantage of that. It will be vital to pressure the hosts and try to force some mistakes early on.
The defense has been one of the major talking points surrounding Athletic this season and they will need to be at their best once again on Thursday. Hertha Berlin winger Matthew Leckie has been in fine form, scoring three goals in three goals in the Bundesliga, and will be the team’s most dangerous weapon. In fact, he has scored all of the team’s goals so far this year. The right-winger loves to dribble, but is also strong in the air. Mikel Balenziaga will likely be tasked with marking him all night and that could end up being the tactical battle that decides the game. The defense will have to be careful though because Leckie is great at drawing fouls in open space.
From a team aspect there are two factors to keep a close eye on. First, Hertha is great at defending set pieces which is an important part of Athletic’s game. The Germans tend to do very well at handling aerial threats and like to use their strength to force attackers from getting into good scoring positions. At the same time, Hertha has struggled to defend forwards down the wing, which is another key part of Athletic’s system. Players like Iñaki Williams and Iker Muniain could cause a lot of trouble out wide and should look to take on their defender whenever they get the chance.
This game really is too close to call. Athletic is off to a historic start to the season, but playing away from home in the Europa League is never easy. If Kuko Ziganda’s men can control possession in the middle of the field, dictate the pace of play, and attack down the wings they should be fine. However, if they struggle to deal with attackers like Leckie or allow Hertha to influence the speed it could be a long night. The Lions will need strong showings from Iñaki Williams, Mikel Vesga, and the rest if they are going to take all three points and this is a game that you won’t want to miss.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Iago Herrerín, Iñigo Lekue, Xabi Etxeita, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel Balenziaga, Mikel Vesga, Mikel San Jose, Iñigo Córdoba, Iker Muniain, Iñaki Williams, Aritz Aduriz