Previewing Villarreal vs Athletic Club: La Liga Matchday 20

Gorka Guruzeta

Athletic are looking for redemption for their 3-0 loss to Villarreal earlier this season (AC)

Athletic Club may have been eliminated from the Copa del Rey, but their priority is still the La Liga campaign. After three straight games against Sevilla the Basques will have a new opponent as they travel to face off with Villarreal on Sunday at Estadio Cerámica. It’s another great opportunity for the Lions to climb the table, but it certainly won’t be easy.

Historically Athletic have struggled against Villarreal, winning just 15 of the 43 total meetings with a -9 goal difference. The two clubs played earlier this year with Villarreal trouncing the Lions 3-0 at the San Mamés in what was one of the most disappointing results under former manager Eduardo Berizzo. On another note, the Basques won 3-1 in their previous trip to Estadio Cerámica. Neither team is the same as when they met earlier this year which makes this match even more interesting.

Villarreal come into Sunday’s match in desperate need of a victory. The Yellow Submarine started the year poorly and, like Athletic, made a managerial change in December by promoting the B team coach. Luis García took over for Javi Calleja but unlike Athletic the team hasn’t been able to get back on the right track. Villarreal haven’t won a game since 13 December, which was a Europa League fixture, and their last win in La Liga came all the way back in late November against Real Betis.

It’s no surprise that Villarreal are calling Sunday’s match against Athletic a final. The player and coaching staff know the importance of picking up three points as they currently sit 19th in the table with just 17 points. A win wouldn’t bring them out of the drop zone, but would be a massive step in the right direction. Luis García has made it clear that the team has been preparing and are solely focused on this game.

Inaki Williams Garitano

Garitano has Athletic playing great football, especially Iñaki Williams (AS)

The managerial change at Athletic has been a completely different story. Garitano has led the team to 5 wins, 2 draws, and only one loss which came in the Copa del Rey first leg against Sevilla. The Zurigorri have won two straight games in league play and a victory against Villarreal would give them three in a row for the first time since April of 2017 under Ernesto Valverde. Claiming three points could also see Athletic move into the top half of the table if other games over the weekend go in their favor.

Like the last few matches Garitano will be without Aritz Aduriz and Raúl García. The pair are dealing with injuries and haven’t been able to rejoin full training yet. Mikel Rico and Iñigo Lekue are also still unavailable. Despite the absences the Lions have played very well of late and the manager will likely stick with the same lineup he used against Sevilla last Sunday, although there is belief that Ibai Gómez could start on the right wing in place of Oscar De Marcos. Aduriz’s unavailability also means that Iñaki Williams is expected to start at striker where he has scored 3 goals in the last two league games.

It may feel like Athletic are finally out of the relegation battle, but they are only three points above the drop zone so they still aren’t safe. Sunday’s match against Villarreal is a must win for both teams because it can dictate the trajectory for the next few games ahead. For Athletic it’s simple, win and move higher or drop points and fall right back into the fight against relegation. The Zurigorri are playing great football at the moment but Villarreal are desperate and that makes them dangerous.

Projected Athletic Club XI: Iago Herrerín, Ander Capa, Yeray, Iñigo Martinez, Yuri Berchiche, Dani García, Beñat, Ibai Gómez, Iker Muniain, Iñigo Córdoba, Iñaki Williams

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