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Preview: Athletic Bilbao-Villarreal

Los Leones still have their Lion King, but he has only one goal so far.  Let's keep it that way.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Los Leones still have their Lion King, but he has only one goal so far. Let's keep it that way. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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     After posting its first win of the season over a supine Mallorca at El Madrigal, the Yellow Submarine travels to the Basque Country and its cathedral of football, San Mamés. 

     Villarreal has actually done rather well here since joining the Primera, winning 5, drawing 3 against 4 losses, and most recently posting a 1-0 win in March 2010 that remains our last away victory in La Liga.  And they may be catching Los Leones at a good time, because they've been playing more like pussycats than kings of the jungle.  Going into this season expectations were high--against many expectations Fernando Llorente remains a member of the team,  young U-21 stars Iker Muniain and Javi Martinez return with another year of experience under their belts, and the Basques added Ander from Real Zaragoza. 

    However, perhaps the biggest change happened when the socios of the club elected a new president, because this resulted in a coaching change.  Gone is Joaquin Caparrós, for no particularly good reason, and in his place is Marcelo Bielsa.  He's been tinkering with formations, most recently trying to remake the team in his 3-4-3 style, playing back-to-front, moving Javi Martinez from central midfield to the center of the back three and putting Muniain in midfield.

   Results have not been encouraging, as Athletic have drawn one and lost three of their first four matches.  They opened with a draw against Rayo at home, and followed that up with road losses to Espanyol and Malaga and a home loss to league-leading Real Betis.  Athletic has generally been able to dominate possession and create numerous scoring chances--the team has 53 shots in four games (23 on goal) but only 4 goals.

   Bielsa is still figuring out who his best XI is and where he should play stars like Muniain and Martinez.   As to whether this team can play in his preferred style successfully, no one yet knows.  The fundamental problem Athletic has is the lack of quality once you get past those top-echelon players--their defending has often been more aggressive than skillful, and they've suffered two midfield injuries already, with Ander and Igor Martinez both sidelined.  Ander's loss will especially be felt as he was supposed to provide some attacking assistance from midfield.  Gorka Iraizoz is a decent keeper but hardly a world-beater.

    I should confess that Athletic were my "sleeper pick" to compete for the Champions League spots this year, so obviously I'm expecting them to be better than they've shown so far.  But I'd be happy if the lions stay sleeping for another week!

   As for Villarreal, it wasn't always pretty on Tuesday, but the team did pick up its first win of the season and at times played with the sort of pace and skill we saw so much of last year.  But we have not done well on the road in the league in a long while--not since San Mamés last March, in fact.

    Coach Garrido has chosen the same squad as last time; no Joan Oriol, no Hernán Pérez, no Gerard Bordas.

Goalkeepers: Diego López and César.
Defenders: Mario, Zapata, Gonzalo, Musacchio, Catalá and Marchena.
Midfielders: Bruno, Marcos Senna, Borja Valero, De Guzmán, Cani, Wakaso and Camuñas.
Strikers: Rossi, Nilmar and Marco Ruben.


      Garrido went with a more offensive lineup against Mallorca, but that was at home against a team that didn't have a lot of midfield strength.  I am expecting something like the following:



                                                    Borja--de Guzmán--Bruno--Cani

                                                                Ruben         Rossi


     Although Garrido has talked about the need to make rotations, our need to gain points in the league after our poor start really makes that difficult, as does Gonzalo's slow return to match fitness.  I think though if he's going to drop anyone to the bench for "rest" reasons, it might be Nilmar.  He's pretty fragile and Ruben might be a better choice given the Basques' physical style, plus he scored our winning goal in this stadium last year.

    The big question for me and a lot of fans will be central midfield.  Does Garrido go conservative and start Marchena, who had a very good game in San Mamés in that position last year, or does he bring in de Guzmán, and maybe even go to more of a diamond shape?  I honestly don't know--it could be he'll figure starting de Guzmán here makes more sense, because I don't see Marchena starting back-to-back games in Bilbao and Napoli.

    I've put JdeGuz in my lineup partly because I think we'll set out primarily to defend in Napoli the way we did last year.  Also, to be honest, I thought starting him in the opening CL game was a lot to ask when he had hardly played with us, and he struggled to make an impact.  So I'd start him now rather than at Napoli.

    If you listened to our last podcast you heard my prediction for the two games this week.  And since I haven't seen Athletic play this year yet, I'll leave my score draw prediction intact--but I hope for more.  Endavant Villarreal!!