Villarreal's next opponent is a classic. Athletic Club (No, it is not Athletic Bilbao) is as classic as they come in La Liga. They only field players with Basque roots. They never used a shirt sponsor until a few years ago. San Mames is an old-school stadium where the stands are really close to the pitch. It is a bit sad that this stadium and its unique arch are going down soon. No wonder they are one of the most popular clubs from Spain after the Big Two.
The interest in Athletic among the football fans around the world has further risen this year with the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa as their coach. He has transformed a team that played an "english style direct football" into a dynamic team that can keep the ball on the ground and play the quick possession game. While they have had the occasional bad game to go with the good games, after a wobbly start to the season, they are one of the best teams in La Liga right now. They are tied for 4th with Espanyol on 33 points.
In the away game at San Mames, Villarreal drew 1-1 in an entertaining albeit error-prone game. Bielsa was just getting a hang of La Liga and Athletic at that time. He has found a formula that works.
Listen to Sid, Allen & Ravi's preview of the game here.
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This Athletic is dangerous in multiple aspects. The dominate in air led by the powerful yet nimble Fernando Llorente. They also boast some very creative players in Ander Herrera, Iker Munaín, Oscar de Marcos and Markel Susaeta. Luckily, Munaín and De Marcos will miss the game due to suspensions. Despite their absence, this team is still loaded with talent and firepower. A case in point is the game vs Málaga last weekend. Athletic scored 3 goals in a span of 5 minutes converting a tense and close game into a blowout.
Defending the tall guys:
Villarreal problems defending physical teams are well documented. Mallorca scored four goals last week mostly because Villarreal couldnt find a way to defend set-pieces. Defending Llorente, Iñigo Perez, Amorebieta(if he plays), San José, Javi Martinez, Toquero and Iraola is going to be very hard. This might force Molina to add Zapata to the back four to try and defend this threat. I am not it is the right approach though.
Defending the powerful runs on the wings:
Defending tireless runners like Toquero, Susaeta, Iraola will be another big challenge for Villarreal. Mario was found out for lack of pace vs Michel Pereira last weekend. Ángel will be back at right-back for this game. The tasks of the fullbacks are cut-out for this weekend. Higher up on the pitch, Cani and Borja will have to keep the ball. Our resident "crack" Sid pointed out in the preview that he would play Hernán Pérez instead of Cani in this game because he has more pace and can track back or go around defenders.
Taking the chances upfront:
Bielsa's 4-3-3/3-4-3 tends to leave some space operate in the final third of the pitch. San José and Javi Martinez in the central defence can be vulnerable if Javi moves up to join the attack and Athletic goes into sort of a 3-man backline. Marco Ruben and Nilmar/Martinuccio/Camuñas have to take advantage of any errors by the Athletic defence.
Javi Martinez v Marcos Senna:
The Old v New. Should be interesting to watch the past and future of Spanish defensive midfield. Bruno Soriano might have something to prove to Vicente Del Bosque in that aspect.
While dont necessarily like it, I think Zapata will start ahead of Musacchio. I don't expect to see more changes though.
Villarreal - Likely XI 4-4-2/4-2-2-2
López; Ángel - Gonzalo - Zapata - Oriol; Bruno - Senna; Borja - Cani; Ruben - Camuñas
Athletic - Likely XI 4-3-3
Iraizoz; Aurtenetxe - Amorebieta/San José - Javi Martínez - Iraola; Iturraspe - Herrera - Iñigo Pérez ; Susaeta - Toquero - Llorente
I predicted a loss in the podcast preview but I am leaning towards a draw now. The new found optimism is not based on any new data. :-) 1-1.
Use hashtag #VILATH for all your tweets before, during and after the game. We will feature the top 5 on our site next week.