Villarreal 1-3 Athletic Club: Lions Run Rampant In Valencia
Time is running out for Athletic Club to make a run at seventh place in the La Liga table so the Lions desperately needed to pick up a win at Estadio Cerámica on Monday. Playing against Villarreal, who were also in need for a victory, was never going to be easy but the players had been open all week about their readiness for the clash. From the opening whistle it was clear that Athletic meant business. The Lions pressured high up the pitch and made things difficult for their hosts. It wouldn’t be long before their efforts would be rewarded.
After only four minutes of action Iñaki Williams was played through on goal. He made a move to get past the keeper but there was no way he put in the back of the net at the angle so he chipped the ball across the box to an oncoming Iñigo Córdoba. The winger struck the bouncing ball into the far corner to give Athletic an early 1-0 lead and put all the pressure on the home side. The fans at Estadio Cerámica were not happy, but the Lions were full of energy.
The rest of the first half was relatively uneventful. Athletic controlled the game for the most part but Unai Nuñez and Iñigo Martinez did have to deal with a few Villarreal counter attacks. The Basques continued to look for Iñaki in behind the defense while Córdoba and Raúl García pulled players out of position. It was arguably the most complete half of football Athletic have played all year, but there was definite concern about needing another goal. Iñaki was slow to pull the trigger on two chances and Asenjo had saved a great shot by García which was keeping Villarreal in the match.
Athletic turned up the pressure in the second half and should had double their lead quickly. Raúl García whipped a fantastic header at goal only to see it saved by the diving Asenjo. The rebound was parried in the air and Oscar De Marcos ripped another header from point blank, but Asenjo was there again. Just when it looked like the Basques were going to be in for a long night, Iñaki came to the rescue when he ran on to a spilled save in the box and blasted it into the goal to give Athletic the much deserved 2-0 lead.
As Athletic fans were celebrating such a brilliant showing, Villarreal would answer back. Carlos Bacca was able to win the ball off of Nuñez in the open field and ran into the box with only the keeper to beat. Kepa did his best but was unable to keep the ball out of the back of the net. Worry began to set in as Villarreal continued to bring the game to the visitors who were pushed back into their own half and struggling to win back consistent possession.
With 15 minutes left to play, Iker Muniain made his long awaited debut when he replaced Markel Susaeta. The star had been out of action since tearing his ACL in late September and was just the spark that Athletic needed late in this intense game. Just a few minutes later Iñaki would hit the post, but another chance was coming. García sent in a strong cross where Muniain was waiting to tap the ball past Asenjo to give Athletic a 3-1 lead and cement a very special return.
Four minutes were added on but the final whistle would soon blow with Athletic having won 3-1 at Estadio Cerámica in what fans will remember as the best game they have played this season. Several storylines stand out such as Córdoba scoring his first goal for the senior side, Iñaki scoring and giving an assist, as well as Muniain’s special return and game-sealing goal. At the same time, Ander Iturraspe and Iñigo Martinez put in masterclass performances once again. It was certainly a special night for the Basque giants.
Athletic Club will be back in action on Saturday when they will host Deportivo at the San Mamés. They will have to do so without Iturraspe and Nuñez who were booked against Villarreal and will now have to serve suspensions. As things stand right now the Lions trail seventh place by seven points with seven games left on the calendar. If they continue to play at this level they can challenge for Europe, but it is going to be difficult. Saturday’s game is another final but right now the Lions are roaring.