Gaizka Garitano “It’s The Most Difficult Game Of The Year”
It’s been nearly 20 years since Athletic last won a La Liga match at Camp Nou but the Lions are eager to end the streak on Tuesday night. Having already beaten Barcelona twice this season, albeit both games at San Mamés, the Basques are full of confidence going into what will be one of the biggest games of the season.
“It’s the most difficult game of the year, but we’re looking forward to the challenge that we have ahead,” said Gaizka Garitano during Monday’s press conference. “We have a very nice challenge of playing a good match and getting a good result. Of the last three games against them we have won twice and drawn the other, although the victories were at San Mamés. It will be more complicated there.”
When asked about the key to toppling Barcelona, Garitano quickly replied that there isn’t one. Teams have to make the most of their chances to make things difficult for the Catalans to get a good result.
“Who has the formula to beat Barcelona? The important thing is to have a plan and we have one. We’re going to work the plan very well. It’s necessary that everyone understands it clearly and from there you can have success. You have to score when you have chances and defend well.”
With games so closely packed together Garitano admits that he also has to think about having players available for the next fixture as well. He explained that he doesn’t know who will be in the best shape to play until the morning of the game and which makes things more complicated.
“Keeping in mind the type of games we’re playing you can’t just think about tomorrow. You also have to think about the next one and how the players will arrive. There are some who are dead, others who will be doubtful until the morning, and some who are ready now. In such a short period of time it’s difficult to decide. You have to see which players are healthy, who can start at the beginning or who would be better coming on near the end.”
Garitano has been criticized over the past week for starting Iñaki Williams on the bench against Eibar and not making substitutions against Betis until very late in the game. The Mister felt no need to defend his decisions.
“If you make changes early then they say you did it too soon and if you make them later, well, it’s the same. The other day we were fine and we didn’t see the need. We left the changes until the end because these games are going 100 minutes instead of 90 minutes. Players can’t play every three days with the intensity that we have.”
The manager will have a big decision to make against Barcelona with left-back Yuri Berchiche suspended for the match. Garitano hinted that he could bring back the 5-3-2 formation, but refused to give anything away.
“When someone is missing it’s an opportunity for another. Someone else will have an opportunity to play. We have Balenziaga, De Marcos, and Lekue who are all players that make me very happy when I put them on. I have trust in all of them. It will depend on whether we play with three or four in defense. We’re open to either because we’ve worked on both options.”
Garitano did, however, reveal that Unai Vencedor and Dani Vivian are expected to travel to Barcelona. Both starlets have been training with the first team and the manager was quick to praise Asier Villalibre who has been in sensational form over the past week.
“Villalibre is getting better after not having trained for 10 days. He’s the forward that we must have, who plays close to the goal. The rest are more secondary forwards. He will be able to play more and more and we’re very happy with him, but he still needs time. Vencedor has been training with us and he and Vivian will almost certainly travel. They are present players who are part of our dynamics.”
Following the controversy in recent games with officiating, Garitano was also asked about playing the likes of Barcelona. Not wanting to get into an unnecessary conversation, the Athletic coach simply explained that everyone makes mistakes and that you can’t dwell on it.
“We all have pressure in this world: footballers, coaches, and referees. There’s a lot of talk and everyone has to manage the pressure as best they can. The referees make mistakes just like the players and coaches. They don’t give us anything or take anything away from us. There are things to improve with VAR and I believe it’s helped more than harmed, but there will always be controversy. We have a lot of confidence in all the players and the referees.”
With just eight games remaining on the schedule Athletic still have hopes of qualifying for Europe. The Zurigorri sit five points off of the top seven and Garitano acknowledged the challenge.
“I don’t look too much at the table. We have a disadvantage that requires us to win many games. Villarreal have won three and we haven’t lost, but we have to win a lot and that’s not easy for anyone.”
A win over Barcelona would go a long way in helping Athletic’s fight for Europe, but it won’t be easy. The Catalans are in a tight race with Real Madrid for the La Liga title and can’t afford to drop points. It’s safe to say that Barcelona will also be out for revenge against Athletic at Camp Nou, but the Lions have already proven that they can take down the reigning champions.