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Preview: Athletic - Villarreal

Anyone have a clue as to how we are going to play in San Mamés on Sunday? Because I don't. The Yellow Submarine has been on an (underwater) roller coaster as of late, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Primarily it has been high form in the Europa League - which, of course, is wonderful - coupled with horrid batches of dropped points in La Liga, week after week. The team that Garrido seems to produce in midweek action these days is simply not the same team that lethargically shows up on the weekends. And tomorrow? Yep, a weekend La Liga match.

Ironically, expect better from the yellow side this Sunday, as Athletic always has been a thorn in Villarreal's side. That doesn't make sense? Go back and look at how Villarreal has played on the road this term in La Liga. Their worst performances have been against some of the lesser Primera teams: Sociedad, Getafe, Deportivo, Atlético, and Gijón. Their best road matches have come against better competition (even though some amounted to losses): Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Espanyol. Simply put, it is one of Garrido's best aspects that he can get the team up for great competition. Unfortunately, the other side of that coin is that he is unable to get the players to care that much against lower-level competition.

But the team knows that Athletic Bilbao is top-tier competition. As Catalá pointed out in a couple of interviews this week (did anyone expect Catalá to be providing the quotes after the Europa League win?), Sunday's match in Bilbao is absolutely huge. A win over Bilbao would put us 12 points ahead with only 9 matches to go, and it could theoretically drop them from our radar as competitors for the Champions League. As the defender stated, "We have a good cushion of points, but we are going to San Mamés with all of the desire in the world. It's not a decisive game, but if we beat them, you could say that we would discard a direct rival."

Athletic is in the midst of a recovery from some very poor form, their own February/March slump of sorts. The good news for Athletic is two-fold. First, their slump was not against poor competition - they lost four straight to Mallorca, Barcelona, Valencia, and Zaragoza. Second, they seem to have turned things around with a win over a strange Sevilla and a draw last weekend at Getafe.

Bilbao will have their ferocious #9 Fernando Llorente ready, who has a sparkling 15 goals to his credit, including the initial tally in the teams' first meeting this season. Villarreal also will have to watch out for the always dangerous Igor Gabilondo, who has scored five goals this year (and scored in the match at El Madrigal in 2009-10), and one of my personal nemeses, Gaizka Toquero. At least in my memory, Toquero always seem to show up in the wrong place at the wrong time for Villarreal.

While tomorrow I hope for the worst for the Basque side, Athletic Bilbao is a team that (speaking only in terms of recent history - their long-term history obviously is very impressive) has consistently played very well, but has not been able to get over the hump and into Europe. They tend to fight hard for the top six, but then fade and find themselves ending the season in mid-table, a bit undeserving of their fate. This feels like the year that they are going to hold on to a European spot.

Villarreal will be without star striker Nilmar for the match, which could be a major blow to the team's chances for 3 points. He has a strained right hamstring - note, an injury completely unrelated to his left knee. Likewise out of the squad are long-term injuries Marcos Senna and Ángel.

In Nilmar's place is Iago Falqué, making his first call for Villarreal's A team. Iago has been a tremendous find for Villarreal and very well could be a regular A team member next year, having scored 9 goals in 28 matches this year for the B squad.

The call for the match:

Keepers: Diego López and Juan Carlos.
Defenders: Mario, Gonzalo, Musacchio, Catalá, Capdevila, Marchena and Kiko.
Midfielders: Borja Valero, Bruno, Matilla, Cani, Santi Cazorla and Wakaso.
Strikers: Rossi, Iago Falqué and Marco Ruben.

Not much else to be said - a vital match for a team desperate for 3 points heading into a two-week break. This match will weigh on the players' minds as their legs get a rest, and it could be a deciding factor in how the rest of the season plays out.