Villarreal welcome Athletic Bilbao to Vila-real in a rare Monday match involving a top half of the table team not named Real Betis (who have played on Monday 10 times this season; this is our first Monday game).
Our visitors: It hasn’t been a great year for Athletic Club on the pitch, though they have successfully parried Real Madrid’s efforts to sign their fine young keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga—especially important given Bilbao’s “Basque only” policy.
One side effect of that policy is it’s harder for the Lions than most to overcome an injury to a key player, and Iker Muinain has missed most of the season with an ACL injury, suffered in a Europa League match. He was on the bench last week against Celta, but didn’t play. He is in their team call:
Arrizabalaga, I.Martínez, San José, Beñat, Iturraspe, Muniain, Williams, Núñez, Iago Herrerín, Susaeta, I.Lekue, X.Etxeita, Mikel Rico, De Marcos, Aduriz, Raúl García, Balenziaga, Cordoba.
Athletic’s best group is their defense—de Marcos, Martinez, Nuñez, Balenziaga—and the aforementioned Kepa. Where they’ve had trouble this year is in attack. Iñaki Williams has great speed, but only five goals to show for his work this season, and maybe Aritz Aduriz is slowing a bit—he’s still their leading scorer, with eight goals, and Raul García has added seven.
Expect the Basques to be the way they always are—physical and strong in the air. However, they’ve struggled to score on the road, and it remains to be seen how motivated they’ll be under a coach everyone expects to be gone in the summer and with nothing to play for. The Lions have often been tabby cats on the road this season—13 points from 15 games.
Villarreal: The weekend’s results are set up pretty well for the Yellow Submarine—yes, Betis won, but Girona and Sevilla were both waxed on the road by lower-ranked opposition. A win would send us six points clear of Girona, who currently sit eighth with fifth through seventh getting a Europa League place.
So what are our chances? There will be two keys here, I think. First, Athletic have been poor this season at allowing attacks down their wings. Any surprise then that Denis Cheryshev is in our side? Or Roberto Soriano?
If we can create chances down the wings (and Manu Trigueros can play some direct balls through to whomever we start in attack) we’ll probably create enough chances to convert one or two.
Second, our backline has got to play intelligently and avoid getting dominated by Los Leones’ attempts to play head tennis, especially off set pieces/dead-ball situations. And make sure the offside trap is set to take care of Williams—he can beat our back line for pace, but it doesn’t matter if the play gets called back!!
All-time record: This has been an interesting series, where home field has made a huge difference. Villarreal is 11-4-2 at home, and the last Bilbao victory in Vila-real was back in February 2004. You have to go back to March 2014 to find the last time Athletic Club got a point (a 1-1 draw with Tomas Pina scoring for us, Aduriz for them, and Gabriel Paulista sent off just after the hour mark).
The referee: Igancio Iglesias Villanueva. He was in charge for our Copa home-leg wins against Leganes and Ponferradina; he’s only seen us in the league once, the 4-0 loss at Getafe that spelled the end for Escribá. He’s best known this season for the 1-1 Valencia-Barcelona draw that featured a disallowed goal for Leo Messi. Well, that and the fact he will be in charge for the Copa del Rey final.
Overall, we’re just 2-7-3 in the league with him in charge; Bilbao is 5-6-4.
Prediction: My optimism is waning a bit after last week. I’m going to go with 1-1. Though if it turns out to be say 3-1 to Villarreal, I won’t be too surprised.