Athletic Club will host Dinamo Bucuresti on Thursday at the San Mamés in the return leg of their Europa League qualifier. After a 1-1 draw in Romania, the Lions need a very strong showing if they are going to advance to the next round. The return of Iñaki Williams should help tilt things in Athletic’s favor, but this is not going to be an easy match. The Basques know that Dinamo will be out for blood and it will be up to Athletic to earn their place in the next stage of the tournament.
Despite the first meeting ending in a 1-1 draw, Athletic does hold the ever-important away goal. That could end up being the difference maker but the Lions would sure love for a big victory at the San Mamés to make things easier. They have been absolutely stunning at home over the last few season, losing only twice in all competitions last year. Thursday’s meeting would be a great time to keep the run of form going, but it definitely isn’t going to be easy.
The starting lineup shouldn’t change all that much, but Kuko Ziganda does have a few decisions to make. After sitting out the first match because he had just returned from vacation, Iñaki Williams will be available. The manager will have to decide if he is going to start over Markel Susaeta and it is obvious that he would provide a much needed spark against the Romanians. Additionally, there could be a change in defense. Xabi Etxeita started alongside Aymeric Laporte and the dup performed well last match, however Mikel San Jose and Eneko Boveda are still options if Ziganda wants to adjust things for round two.
The Athletic midfield will still be an important area to watch. Beñat and Mikel Vesga are expected to start together again, with Mikel Rico and Mikel San Jose providing depth on the bench. Ander Iturraspe will almost certainly miss the game after picking up a muscle strain in Saturday’s friendly against Reus. Ziganda has said that he has big plans for Iturraspe this season, but those will have to wait until he can fully recover and rejoin the team in training.
At the other end, it would be really surprising to see Rivaldinho start on the bench again. He came on after halftime in Romania and was the reason that Dinamo was able to level the score and push the Lions to the brink. Until his substitution, Athletic was in complete control of the game. Rivaldinho’s dribbling and pace totally changed the complexity of the game and the Basques had no answer for his attacking capabilities. Surely Ziganda will be ready for the Brazilian this time around, but he could still cause a lot of problems.
Tactically speaking, Athletic needs to do what they do best – control possession and dictate the pace of play. The Lions aren’t build to get into a counter-attacking battle with opponents and that is exactly what Dinamo would love to do. Rivaldinho’s transition abilities and link up play could wreak havoc so it will be up to the Athletic midfield to know when to slow things down and when to take their chances with dangerous passes. If Iñaki Williams does start there will be more of a temptation to counter-attack so it will be important to read the game well and pick the right moments. Raul Garcia is very under appreciated in this aspect and can be vital on Thursday.
Along with keeping an eye on pace of play and defending, Athletic also needs to find a way to create more chances. Their lone goal in Romania came through Aymeric Laporte on a set piece, which isn’t necessarily the best thing. The Lions did create a few other chances, but Aritz Aduriz did not get much service throughout the 90 minutes. Starting Iñaki Williams will definitely help that, but regardless the Lions can’t expect clear chances to fall into their laps. Dinamo is a physical and strong team and will force the Basques to create through passing. Beñat will be as important as ever and Iker Muniain’s elusiveness will be needed as well.
On paper Athletic is the stronger side, especially when considering that they are playing at the San Mamés. Still, this is the Europa League and every game is difficult and unpredictable. As long as the Lions control possession and don’t allow their visitors to pressure them into a running game they should be able to put in a very strong performance. As mentioned earlier, the return of Iñaki Williams could really be the difference maker here. Whether or not he starts, he will provide a spark and added attacking dimension that no one else in the team can bring. It is going to be a highly competitive game and the winner will be moving on to the next round of the Europa League.
Predicted Athletic Club XI: Iago Herrerin, Oscar De Marcos, Xabi Etxeita, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel Balenziaga, Beñat, Mikel Vesga, Iker Muniain, Raúl Garcia, Iñaki Williams, Aritz Aduriz