Gaizka Garitano “I Can’t Find More Motivation Than This Shirt And Playing For This Team”
Nearly 100 days ago Athletic left Valladolid with 4-1 win and full of confidence. The Lions had advanced to the Copa del Rey final and were coming off of a thrilling performance as they looked to continue climbing the La Liga table. However, the pandemic struck and for three months there was no football.
This weekend La Liga has finally returned and Athletic will host Atlético Madrid at San Mamés on Sunday. Unfortunately, fans won’t be allowed at the stadium. Games will be played behind closed doors and manager Gaizka Garitano believes that the team already has plenty of reason to go out and secure a big win in their comeback.
“I can’t find more motivation than this shirt and playing for this team,” Garitano said during Saturday’s press conference. “I’ve been in football for years and I can’t find anything like it at another club or in another country.”
The Lions have had the last five weeks to train in preparation for Sunday’s match. It will be far from what the players are used to, but at the end of the day it’s a football match with three points on the line.
“We’ve had a lot of time to prepare for this match. We clearly understand things about what we want to do tomorrow, however from a football aspect it won’t be so easy. The first match back is very important because it will mark a good start. From this day we will play the rest of season almost without training.”
Kicking off the final eleven games against Atlético will be demanding. Despite the football stoppage Garitano expects a major test as usual.
“We will compete against one of the best teams in Europe. The essence of Atlético won’t change because they’ve been playing in the same way for 8 or 9 years and with good results. They have a very recognizable style, which has given them good results, and we hope to meet Atlético as usual. We’re two teams that recognize each other for what they do.”
With a very compressed schedule to finish the season Garitano admits no one really knows what to expect, but that will be the case for all. Adapting will be important for success and the manager says there’s no excuse.
“We have a lot of uncertainty, but so does every team. It’s no excuse because we’re all in the same conditions except the time between games. We’re going to face difficult games and the first one is very difficult. We have to adapt to new situations that are totally different from what was happening before. No has experienced playing games so often, especially us who will play even more often.”
Match day squads have been increased to 23 players for the remainder of the season and coaches will be allowed 5 substitutions. Garitano made it clear that everyone must be ready to contribute because it will take the whole squad to reach Europe.
“We’re going to have to use a lot of players and everyone has to be prepared. In training you see a lot of things, but the reality is given to you by the games and there we all go blindly. The players are excited, but with matches every three days everyone must be prepared because they will participate.”
The manager has seen how other teams have handled the return over the past few days. With more stoppages than usual he admits that there are times when it’s very obvious that the stands are empty.
“I have seen all the games from the previous days. You have to take into account all the stops, especially in the second half to drink water and make substitutions. The actual minutes of play in the second half aren’t many. You have to acclimate. After stops it will be noticed that there are no fans in the stands, which for us is a handicap.”
On Friday Valencia dropped two points in a draw with Levante, opening the door for Athletic to make up ground on 7th place. A win against Atlético would bring the Basques within three points of Europe. “We have to look at ourselves and not at other results,” said Garitano. “We have to win as many games as possible and not think about others. We have to do our thing.”
Following his press conference Garitano released the 23-man squad which included Iñigo Lekue, who had been nursing an ankle sprain, as well as Oihan Sancet. However, as the Mister explained, Asier Villalibre missed a few days of training with a muscle overload and will not be in the team. For Athletic the road to Europe begins on Sunday and though San Mamés will be silent, the Lions are determined to road loudly.