Previewing Athletic Club vs Espanyol: La Liga Matchday 27
Athletic suffered just their second defeat under Gaizka Garitano last weekend, falling 2-0 to Valencia at Mestalla. It was an extremely disappointing result for the Lions who had the opportunity to climb into 7th place in the table and now they are looking to rebound in a big way. The Basques will welcome Espanyol to San Mamés on Friday night and they are ready for a battle.
Interestingly, Athletic have faced off with Espanyol more times (171) than any other club besides Barcelona or Real Madrid. The Lions have won 71 of those meetings, a 41.5% win percentage, and hold a +49 goal difference. However, Athletic have only managed to beat Espanyol once in their last 6 matches, losing the last two by 1-0 scorelines, including earlier this year. In another twist, Athletic have actually won 3 of the last 5 meetings at San Mamés while never conceding more than one goal. History says Friday’s match will be unpredictable.
Espanyol come into the game tied with Athletic on 33 points and in decent form. The Catalans are unbeaten in their last 5 games, winning twice, and have been strong defensively. While the Periquitos may be playing better football as of late, they have been atrocious away from home. Espanyol have won just one game outside of RCDE stadium this season which bodes well for Athletic.
Rubi will also be without two of his most important players as leading goalscorer Borja Iglesias and midfield general Sergi Darder are both suspended for the match. Sergio García is also unavailable. Iglesias has scored 11 goals this season, 8 more than anyone else on the team, which leaves Espanyol with a major hole to fill against a very strong Athletic defense. It will be up to Facundo Ferreyra, Hernán Pérez, and exciting new signing Wu Lei to lead the attack.
Athletic’s situation is well-known by this point. In December the Zurigorri were drowning in the relegation zone and now they are just 3 points off of 7th place in the La Liga table. They’ve only lost two games under Garitano and both of those came on the road. At San Mamés the Lions have been roaring and they know just how important it will be to win on Friday night with a big game against Atlético Madrid looming before the international break.
Once again Garitano will be without Aritz Aduriz and Iñigo Lekue due to injuries, as well as Ander Capa who will be missing his second straight game with a strained hamstring. Oscar De Marcos will start at right-back and the rest of the defense and midfield is expected to be unchanged. The real question is will the Mister change the attack. Ibai Gómez started at right-wing against Valencia and had a poor game. It was the same story for Iker Muniain who started on the left, but played much better and opened up the game when he was moved in the midfield. Garitano could go with the same players up top or bring in someone else like Markel Susaeta or Iñigo Córdoba to shake things up.
Iñigo Martinez, Yeray, Unai Nuñez, Oscar De Marcos, and Iker Muniain are all one booking away from suspension so they will have to be careful against Espanyol. If any of them are shown a yellow card they would miss the next match against Atlético Madrid. Garitano says that he won’t protect them because it’s important to win the fixture against Espanyol before looking ahead to other matches.
The key to victory for Athletic Club will be their dangerous counter attack. Espanyol is a team that likes to keep the ball on the ground and have proven to be susceptible to counters this season. At times they struggle to transition from offense to defense and that is where the Lions can cause the most problems for their visitors. The Basques can also look to take advantage of set pieces which is another area where Espanyol have had issues. With Borja Iglesias out Espanyol’s attack will be missing their strongest punch, but Athletic will still need to be at their best defensively in order to control the game and pace of play.
Garitano said before the match against Valencia that the next three games would define the season for Athletic. The Lions have moved clear of the relegation zone, but are still on the outskirts in the battle for Europe. A win against Espanyol could put Athletic right into the middle of the conversation for the top 7, while anything less will keep them at mid-table. It’s another final and another big game at San Mamés.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Iago Herrerín, Oscar De Marcos, Yeray, Iñigo Martinez, Yuri Berchiche, Dani García, Beñat, Ibai Gómez, Raúl García, Iker Muniain, Iñaki Williams