Gaizka Garitano “Real Madrid Are Strong But I’m Optimistic”
Athletic’s quest for Europe was strengthened on Wednesday night when the Lions left Mestalla with a 2-0 win and all three points. With just five games remaining Athletic are very much in the race for a top seven finish, but tomorrow’s visit from Real Madrid will make things more complicated. Manager Gaizka Garitano recognizes and welcomes the challenge.
“We have a very difficult game against the best team in the league,” Garitano said during Saturday’s press conference. “They’re the best team, not only because of their squad but also because of the organization they have on the field. We have a nice challenge of trying to beat them. Real Madrid are strong but I’m optimistic.”
Despite Real Madrid’s weapons in attack, Garitano highlighted the team’s defending as the biggest problem going into the game. Madrid have allowed the fewest goals in La Liga this season, but the Lions have been better going forward since the restart.
“It’s true that after the break there has been more equality in games, but it’s also true that Real Madrid have won everything. Hopefully we play a good game because we will have more opportunities to score. They’ve had very few goals scored against them. They’re very well organized and have been very solid.”
The biggest questions is whether Garitano will field a strong lineup or rest key players like he did against Barcelona. Either way, the Mister is happy with the way his squad has handled the grueling schedule.
“I’m not surprised by the physical response from the players. We’ve worked hard in these four weeks and the players have been responsible at home where we have given them tools. We do have a player in doubt tomorrow. He’s touched but on the squad list.”
Garitano was also asked about the status of Ibai Gómez who has been called up for every game since the season resume, but has only played once. “I’m very happy with him, although I’m using other players who are giving great performances in those positions,” Garitano responded. “It’s a matter of choice. I spoke with him yesterday. He’s a magnificent professional and he can play at any moment.”
Playing at San Mamés will give Athletic a boost against Real Madrid, but it won’t be the same without fans. Garitano admits it’s difficult to play behind closed doors, though the team has done well so far.
“It’s unfortunate really. The other day we were talking about what this match would be with fans. It would have been a nice game with everyone together, but surely the players on the field will feel that everyone is watching the match.”
For now Athletic sit just two points off of seventh place and Garitano isn’t taking anything for granted. There are still 15 points left to play and the race for Europe will go all the way down to the wire.
“We aren’t favorites for Europe. I see La Real well and it’s true that Valencia has gone through a slump. We’re in the fight and we have to continue until the end. There are still two weeks left and we have five games. When we look at the table we see each match as a final.”
A victory on Sunday would put Athletic in great position going into the final stretch of the season. Taking points off of Real Madrid will be arduous, but the Zurigorri have been in excellent form since the season returned and are capable of beating anyone when at their best.