Previewing Sestao River vs Athletic Club: Copa Del Rey Second Round
Athletic’s pursuit of a 25th Copa del Rey title continues on Saturday as the Lions travel to Las Llanas for a match against Bizkaia neighbors Sestao River. Despite being separated by just 12 kilometers the two Basque clubs have met only six times apart from friendlies, all coming in cup ties in the 1980s, with the most recent taking place in early 1989. Athletic would go on to advance each time and will look to do so again this weekend.
Led by manager Ibón Etxebarrieta, River booked their place in the second round of the Copa del Rey by defeating Lugo on penalties. Apart from the Cup, the club has enjoyed great success this season and are currently tied at the top of the Tercera Group VI table where CD Basconia also compete. River have lost just two games all season and are coming off of a scoreless draw with Lagun Onak.
Forward Leandro Martínez leads the team with 9 goals this season while Ximon Aranguren and Óscar Martín have combined for 7 as well. Etxebarrieta’s traditional 4-4-2 system has brought balance to River who have scored a total of 31 goals in league play while conceding just 11 times. Playing in front of their own fans will give an already confident River the belief that they can shock the Lions.
In addition to being a great opportunity to face one of La Liga’s most historic and decorated clubs, the match against Athletic will also be a special game for many River players. Victor Monteiro, Aitor Villar, Andoni Perez, Kepa Vietes, Julen Huidobra, Eneko Rubio, Iker De Eguino, and Ander Gago all attended Lezama for at least one year with some making it as far as CD Basconia or even Bilbao Athletic.
The connection between Athletic and River has been undeniable in recent years. River stars such as Gaizka Toquero and Koikili Lertxundi eventually went on to represent the Zurigorri and enjoyed success at San Mamés. Most notably, Ibai Gómez played for River in 2009/2010 where he caught the attention of Athletic and signed with the Lions at the end of an impressive season. Gómez is expected to start Saturday’s match as he makes a memorable return to Las Llanas.
Garitano sent a clear message that Athletic will be taking this game very seriously when he personally scouted River during last weekend’s match against Lagun Onak. The Mister is expected to rotate the team on some level, but explained during Friday’s press conference that several players have been dealing with discomfort and fevers. Garitano won’t be announcing the squad list until Saturday morning.
Players such as Inigo Lekue, Gaizka Larrazabal, Ibai Gómez, Kenan Kodro, Asier Villalibre, Unai Nunez, Mikel Vesga, and Iago Herrerin should all feature this weekend though a handful of key contributors will likely travel with the squad as well. Mikel Balenziaga has been penciled in as the starting left-back but could miss the game with a fever. On the other hand, Iker Muniain has been cleared to play after being sidelined for nearly two months with a hamstring injury. The captain may make his return at Las Llanas.
Regardless of the lineup that Garitano fields, Athletic will be the heavy favorites to win and move on to the next round of the Copa del Rey. River play football football in the center of the field and excel in attack down the wings which will be the biggest threat to Athletic. The Zurigorri can’t afford to take the game lightly and will look to open the scoring early on to establish control of the game.
The match against River will be special for many reasons. It’s been decades since Athletic last played a Bizkaia Derby and there is significant history and a great relationship between the neighboring clubs. However, Athletic are unwavering in their commitment to reaching the Copa del Rey final and are determined to book their place in the next round with a victory at Las Llanas.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Iago Herrerín, Iñigo Lekue, Unai Núñez, Iñigo Martinez, Mikel Balenziaga, Mikel Vesga, Beñat, Gaizka Larrazabal, Raúl García, Ibai Gómez, Kenan Kodro