Previewing Valencia vs Athletic Club: La Liga Mathday 26
It wasn’t that long ago that Athletic were drowning in the relegation zone, but that has changed very quickly. After last weekend’s win over Eibar the Lions are 10 points clear of the drop and just 3 points away from Europe. Manager Gaizka Garitano has constantly refused to discuss the possibility of Europe, though he can’t avoid it forever. Sunday’s match at the Mestalla will be extremely difficult, that’s for certain, however a win would make Athletic serious contenders.
Athletic and Valencia are two of the most storied clubs in the history of La Liga, meeting a total of 169 times across all competitions. Only Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Espanyol have played faced Lions more. Athletic have managed to win 62 times against Valencia, but have lost 66 matches with -4 a goal difference. Whats more, the Mestalla hasn’t been a friendly venue either. In their last 30 trips Athletic have won just twice, the last time coming back in February of 2016, and have suffered 19 defeats. Earlier this season the two played to a scoreless draw at San Mamés.
Valencia enter Sunday’s match unbeaten in their last 7 La Liga fixtures and in good form, although they have drawn their last four. The recent streak has seen them rise all the way to 9th in the La Liga and tied with Athletic with 33 points. However, Los Che have also had to focus on two other competitions. Earlier this week they defeated Real Betis to advance to the Copa del Rey final and will also compete in the Europa League on Thursday.
Reports from Valencia claim that manager Marcelino García Toral plans to rotate his lineup against Athletic to keep the team fresh. Ezequiel Garay will also miss the fixture due to an injury which could leave the hosts in a difficult situation defensively. Even so, Valencia have a very strong squad and won’t be looking past Sunday’s match at home. A win would catapult them into the battle for Europe and they won’t take this game lightly.
The daunting task of overcoming the Mestalla looms large for Athletic, but this team isn’t concerned with history. Since Gaizka Garitano took over as the manger back in early December the Lions have lost only one La Liga match while conceding just five goals, fewer than any other club. Athletic have taken 22 of a possible 33 points over the last two months and have every intention of improving those numbers against Valencia.
Once against Garitano will be without Aritz Aduriz and Iñigo Lekue who are still recovering from injuries. However, Ander Capa is also expected to miss the game after picking up a hamstring strain in Thursday’s practice. Oscar De Marcos will take his place at right-back, leaving the manager with a decision to make over who to start on the right wing. Even with a few key players unavailable Garitano will still be able to field a very strong team and Athletic have proven that they will play fantastic football no matter who is on the field.
With Aduriz still unavailable it will be up to Iñaki Williams to lead the attack. Based on recent weeks it’s safe to assume that Iker Muniain will still be on the left wing and Raúl García will play centrally. Ibai Gómez and Markel Susaeta will be the two most likely options to start on the right. Susaeta has been in the lineup more often as of late, though Gómez could also get the nod. Other than Capa being out, the rest of the lineup should remain unchanged.
Garitano has put a heavy emphasis on playing the ball out of the back during this week’s training. Valencia like to press in the final third and Athletic will have to protect the ball in their own area in order to not give up chances in front of goal. The midfield battle will also play a major role in the outcome. Dani García and Dani Parejo will both be looking to control the game and whoever gets the upper hand will likely lead their team to victory.
The Athletic players have been in good spirits leading up to this game, but they’ve also set the expectations high. A win could put Athletic in 7th place and right in the middle of the battle for Europe. Anything less and the Zurigorri will stay at mid-table. There’s plenty of football left to be played this season, though that really doesn’t matter to the Basque giants. Under Garitano Athletic are taking it one game at a time and that means that winning Sunday’s match is the only thing that matters.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Iago Herrerín, Oscar De Marcos, Yeray, Iñigo Martinez, Yuri Berchiche, Dani García, Beñat, Markel Susaeta, Raúl García, Iker Muniain, Iñaki Williams