Finally. After going ten-straight straight La Liga matches without a win Athletic finally tasted victory again on Sunday as the Lions defeated Villarreal 1-0 at San Mamés. Gaizka Garitano’s side put in a great performance at home to secure the three points, though it was far from easy. The game would be full of intensity and the Basques standing strong to put the winless streak to an end.
Athletic started the game well, utilizing a high press that kept Villarreal from possessing the ball in the opposing half for the opening eleven minutes. The drama started early on as Iker Muniain was slightly pulled down in the box. The referee waved play on despite fans shouting for the play to be reviewed. Moments later Gerard Moreno would be played through on goal with Unai Simón making an incredible save to deny the goal.
The Lions would have a number of chances in the first half with the first coming from Raúl García forcing a turnover. After the counter attack, Iker Muniain received a pass in the box and curled a shot wide of the far post while Dani García was calling for the ball. Dani would have his own opportunity in stoppage time and put a long shot wide which was followed by Iñigo Córdoba missing with a volley.
Gaizka Garitano made an early change after the break, brining on Iñaki Williams for Ibai Gómez in the 51st minute. The move had an immediate impact as Williams won a penalty soon after when his shot struck an arm in the box. Replay showed that the defender’s arms were tucked behind his back, though the referee still gave the penalty. Raúl García sent the goalkeeper the wrong way and scored to give Athletic a 1-0 lead.
Surprisingly, Athletic would be awarded a second penalty in the 63rd minute when a header from Iñigo Martinez struck a defender’s outstretched arm following a free kick. This play was much more clear, though the penalty was saved with Iñaki Williams putting a weak shot on goal. Raúl García tried to score from the rebound but his effort was also stopped.
Villarreal began to make changes in hopes of finding an equalizer and Simón was called on to make a handful of saves, punches, and claims without being overly troubled. Yuri Berchiche, Yeray, Unai Núñez, and others all made important tackles in and around the box to stop attacks while Martinez nearly doubled the lead in 74th minute with a diving header in the box. Once again, Sergio Asenjo made the save.
Less than ten minutes later Asenjo would deny Athletic yet again by saving a close shot from Oihan Sancet and the rebound from Ander Capa. Tension began to grow as chances were missed and legs became tired. Villarreal sent more players forward in the final moments of the game but were unable to break down the Athletic defense as the match would eventually end in a 1-0 win for the Basques.
Defeating Villarreal is a massive result for Athletic and Gaizka Garitano deserves credit for making important changes. The manager returned to the traditional 4-2-3-1 and put Iñigo Córdoba in the starting lineup again which brought more balance. Athletic’s press choked Villarreal at times while Dani García was everywhere in the midfield to constantly win balls and break up attacks.
If not for Asenjo’s heroics, Athletic would have won by a far greater margin. The Zurigorri defended well, created chances, and controlled play with 56% possession. With the winless streak finally snapped, the Basques can turn their attention to Thursday night’s Cup semifinal second leg trip to Granada with confidence and hope of advancing to the final.