Athletic Club will finish off their season against Atletico Madrid on Sunday in a match that will decide their fate in the race for European qualification. However, their hosts will also be saying goodbye to their stadium which makes this a special game for both sides. With so much to play for and a lot of storylines to watch, this could be the most entertaining and emotional match of the LaLiga season.
It all comes down to this. Sunday will be the final match day of the LaLiga season and Athletic Club’s trip to face off with Atletico Madrid will decide their future. For the Lions it’s simple: win and they officially finish top six and qualify for the Europa League. If they can’t take all three points they will need to get some help from other games in order to book their place in European competition for the fourth consecutive season. That being said, any match against Atletico will surely be a difficult task.
Athletic comes into the game in fine form. Ernesto Valverde’s side had won four straight games before drawing their last two, but the way they have been playing is exceptional. During those two draws they were able to create a lot of scoring chances, but their finishing, and the crossbar, just wouldn’t allow them to take all three points. That will need to change on Sunday and luckily they will have their entire squad available for the match.
On the other hand, Sunday’s match is a special one for Atletico Madrid who will be saying goodbye to the Vicente Calderon. Los Colchoneros have sealed their top three finish and, technically, have nothing left to play for, but they will certainly want to win this match in front of their fans. They will have to overcome the absences of several vital defenders though. Diego Godin, Felipe Luis, Juanfran, Sime Vrsaljko, and Jose Gimenez will all be out due to injuries and suspensions. That means Diego Simeone will have to work some magic to field a full backline, which could play into Athletic’s favor.
One thing working against Athletic is their history at the Calderon. The Lions haven’t won there since late January back in 2011 when Gaizka Toquero scored a brace to take all three points. Since then the Basques have suffered four losses and a single draw. They will have to overcome their Madrid woes if they are to book their place in the Europa League next season. This will be the perfect opportunity for Ernesto Valverde, who is expected to leave this summer, to go out with a big win and help the Basques qualify for Europe for the fourth straight season.
There are so many storylines going into this match, as well as several tactical battles. The first matchup, and likely the most important one, will be Athletic’s attack against Atletico’s defense. Stefan Savic and Lucas Hernandez will likely start in the center, but it is unknown who will protect the wide areas. If Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams can get the best of their defenders it could lead to a lot of chances on goal for the Lions. Still, Simeone will likely have a plan in place to try to keep the Basques in the middle of the pitch where his team will be their strongest.
Despite being shorthanded defensively, Atletico will have a plethora of attacking options which Athletic will need to keep in check. The Lions have struggled to stop Antoine Griezmann in recent years and the striker has scored five goals in the last five meetings, including a hat-trick back in 2014. Simeone does have a lot of pace to put up front so it will be up to the Athletic midfield to keep control of possession and not allow their hosts the freedom to pick out dangerous passes.
Making any sort of prediction for this match is impossible. Atletico will be without their entire starting backline which should help Athletic cause a lot of problems, especially with the Lions fielding their strongest lineup. However, Simeone is a defensive mastermind and will likely have a plan to overcome the defensive weaknesses, including a deadly attack force with players like Antoine Griezmann, Kevin Gameiro, Yannick Carrasco, and others. Add in the fact that Athletic are playing for Europe and Atletico are saying goodbye to their stadium and this one has the makings of a historical encounter. For Athletic Club the plan is simple – win.
Athletic Club Probable XI: Kepa Arrizabalaga, Oscar De Marcos, Yeray, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel Balenziaga, Benat, Mikel San Jose, Inaki Williams, Raul Garcia, Iker Muniain, Aritz Aduriz