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Athletic Club-Villarreal CF PREVIEW

A big match in San Mamés: if the home side win they get to within two points of Villarreal, lose and they are eight back.

Villarreal CF v UD Las Palmas - La Liga
Escribá has to get our starting XI and tactics right in what promises to be a very juicy game.
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Villarreal head up to the Basque Country to take on Athletic Club (Bilbao) in what is guaranteed to be a feisty match in a passionate San Mamés. Athletic have started out the season well but are without a win in their last three matches, with their last home appearance in La Liga a disappointing 1-1 draw with Osasuna. However, they’ve defeated Sevilla at San Mamés, and their only loss was to Barcelona.

Athletic: They have had some injury issues of late, though Aymeric Laporte says he should be available for this one. Beñat, Etxeita, and De Marcos are all nursing knocks but should be in the squad for this one.

Athletic’s “Basque only” policy has the effect of limiting their potential player base, but also ensures the team doesn’t change over much year to year. They are strong in the air, especially with the ageless Aduriz in the goal-scoring form of his life; they are aggressive tacklers, and they will take a lot of shots and try a lot of crosses. And pick up some yellow cards, too.

They play a 4-2-3-1 with Aduriz as the 1, Muniain, Raul Garcia and Iñaki Williams behind him. Williams’ speed makes him a real danger man, and Aduriz’s height almost guarantees him a goal somewhere along the way.

Villarreal: The surprise omission from Escriba’s squad is Mateo Musacchio. Here is the team call:

  • Keepers: Asenjo and Andrés Fernández.
  • Defenders: Mario, José Ángel, Jaume Costa, Víctor Ruiz, Bonera and Álvaro.
  • Midfielders: Bruno, Trigueros, Cheryshev, Samu Castillejo, Roberto Soriano, Jonathan dos Santos and Rodrigo.
  • Strikers: Sansone, Pato and Bakambu.

I would have thought this match was tailor-made for N’Diaye to at least be on the bench; since he isn’t, I think we can safely assume he will be gone in January barring some great change. What changes will Escribá make to his standard XI? I am expecting Álvaro to partner Ruiz; will it be Soriano and Cheryshev on the wings, or Jonathan dos Santos, or Castillejo? I’m pretty sure Sansone and Bakambu will start, though Pato for Bakambu would not surprise me. And of course is always possible Escribá will go for a 4-2-3-1 of his own and maybe play Sansone in midfield.

All-time record: Villarreal are 5-5-6 in San Mamés in the Primera; 10-4-2 at El Madrigal. Our last win in Bilbao was in March 2011 (1-0, Marco Ruben). Last year we drew 0-0 in a feisty match where Daniele Bonera (!) and Iñaki WIlliams both got sent off in injury time.

Comments and keys to the match: Of all the clubs in La Liga, Athletic is probably the one we match up with the worst in terms of their strengths versus our weaknesses. WhoScored probably has it right: our midfield players have higher ratings, but their strikers do (and their back five, too, surprising given they’ve conceded 13 goals to our 7). And with both coaches approaching this from a very tactical standpoint, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a close match as long as both sides play anywhere near their potential.

Keys to victory for the Submarine: (1) limit fouling in dangerous areas—set pieces are really dangerous for us because of Athletic’s aerial superiority; (2) control enough of the ball in midfield to both limit Athletic’s possession and create some chances for our strikers, wherever they are playing; (3) watch out for counterattacks but look to create some of our own when we can; (4) find a way to use our superior depth to tilt this in our favor.

If all that sounds overly tactical, that’s because there are is a very tactical coach on each bench!

Prediction: I’ll be happy if we can come back with a 1-1 draw. So, that’s my prediction!

PS—A reminder that if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, and want to watch the match with some passionate soccer fans (most of whom will be cheering for Athletic, but still), here’s where we’ll be.