La Liga: All eyes on Sunday evening’s Basque battle

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MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) points us towards his favourite fancies from matchday five from La Liga.

Athletic Bilbao v Alaves | Sunday 22nd September 2019, 17:30 | BT Sport

If I had to go to war tomorrow alongside any team in La Liga, Athletic Bilbao would be my choice without a moment’s hesitation.

On the other hand, if I had to choose a team to win a game of football where I knew the opposition was going to place 10 men behind the ball and defend deep, Athletic Club would be towards the bottom of my list of preferences.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Los Leones are a team I want to have on my side when the situation requires the door to be battered down rather than the locked picked. They are a team that perform best when they are challenged in their fortress, when they are fuelled by emotion.

I must admit, as an Anglosajón living here in Spain, I bloody love watching Athletic Bilbao when they channel their aggression and energy into one of those performances that come around every once in a while, where they completely bulldoze and overwhelm the opposition. It feels like football from home, where it’s acceptable to cheer for corners and throw-ins while those on the other side shrug their shoulders in confusion at my Neanderthal ways.

We saw this a few weeks ago in the Basque derby against Real Sociedad where Imanol Alguacil’s men were completely shell-shocked and unable to get anywhere near the physicality levels of the hosts. There are many similarities between this current version of Athletic Club and modern rugby teams, whereby so much depends on aggression and energy, the crowd and players feeding off a collective emotion.

When San Mamés roars and the players in red and white chase every ball, contest every aerial dual as if it was a matter of life or death, and players like Ander Capa and Iñaki Williams run fast, very fast, in a straight line, they really are a thrilling team to watch.

I’m convinced one day Capa is going to do a Forrest Gump and forget to turn left as he charges down the sideline and off down the tunnel of somewhere like Vallecas he’ll go.

Since his arrival last December, Gaizka Garitano has done a fantastic job of re-connecting the team with what makes this historic club great. That’s why on the biggest nights, in the biggest games in San Mamés, we know what type of performance we will see from the Lions.

Since taking over, Garitano’s men have played 14 home league games: 10 wins, six draws, zero defeats and eight clean sheets – fortress.

Head over heart

This weekend’s Basque derby is going to be very interesting, not necessarily for the football on show, but rather to see if Garitano’s men have developed another string to their bow in order to overcome the type of teams who frustrated the hosts in La Catedral last season.

Besides a scoreless draw v Barcelona last February, the other five home draws in the last 12 months have come against teams who I would consider not too fussed about having any sort of control of the football.

The likes of Getafe, Valladolid and, this weekend’s visitors, Alavés are three teams which are renowned for being very well-drilled, with a set game-plan where the round leather thing itself is not necessarily a key protagonist.

In these types of games, where the onus is on them to try to get past two deep-lying banks of four, Athletic Club have struggled. There is virtually zero space for Iñaki to gallop into or for Iker Muniain to weave intricate passes, and these games have often played out with lots of huff and puff but little quality action.

The last six fixtures between the men from the Basque capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and those from an hour up the road in Bilbao have seen one win for Muniain & Co, three draws, two defeats and four goals scored – not very encouraging by any stretch for a team with the vastly superior financial muscle.

Last season saw two draws; a 0-0 in December which Marca described as “un empate a nada” (a nothing draw), which was followed by a 1-1 in April back in Bilbao which the Madrid-based newspaper branded “La feria del músculo” (a festival of muscle).”

They described how the likes of Muniain “were unable to find any open doors or get past two fences of four men assembled by Abelardo.” Athletic Club’s goal, a stunning Beñat free kick from 30 yards, was their only shot on target in the 90 minutes.

That’s why, this weekend, the home team might have to depend more on their head than their heart because we already know how the other Garitano, Asier, is going to set out his team.

After four games, Alavés have conceded only two goals and have looked similar to the defensively sound side we saw under Abelardo in the first half of last season. They will sit deep and gladly concede possession, while hoping Athletic Club will frustrate themselves into lapses in concentration for the likes of the reinvigorated Aleix Vidal, Joselu and Lucas Perez to take advantage.

All the pressure is on the Basque giants here and I’m usually very wary of backing Athletic Club at short odds. Therefore, I shall be watching this one with interest to see if they have learned from last season’s frustrations against teams of this ilk.

Athletic should win this one (which will most likely be a low-scoring affair) but I’m curious to see whether they will aim to do so by battering on the Alavés door or if they show a little more guile and cuteness in the final third.

It’s games like this which will tell us a lot about where they really are as a team, rather than the big games where the modus operandi is blood, sweat and Raul Garcia’s glorious shithousery.

La Liga Talking Points

Time to worry about Eibar and Leganés

We’re only four games into the season but it feels like we should already begin to fear for two of La Liga’s most lovable teams. As mentioned in last week’s piece, there is less room for error this season given the competence of the competition in the battle to avoid relegation.

Mallorca went toe-to-toe with Athletic Bilbao last Friday night, Osasuna were unlucky to only come away with a point at Valladolid, and Granada returned home from a long journey to Vigo with all three points in one of those pointless games where one team is reduced to nine men early in the first half.

In a nutshell, the new boys are good while Eibar and Leganés, right now, are not. It is very early days but Pellegrino’s men already find themselves seven points behind Granada and six behind the men from Pamplona and that already feels big.

In the past two jornadas, Eibar have thrown away six points from winning positions and they look defensively and mentally weak. Leading Espanyol 1-0 with 15 minutes remaining in their first game of the season in little Ipurua, Eibar looked to be set for their first win of the campaign. That was until captain and defensive leader Iván Ramis had to go off injured and three minutes later Eibar found themselves 2-1 down – a stunning collapse.

While Eibar showed some semblance of themselves, the feelings around Leganés are far more pessimistic as they limped to a 3-0 trouncing at home to Villarreal. Lega showed nothing: no energy, no aggression, no ideas – nada, and that is the worrying part.

From a source close to the club there is unrest in the Cucumber dressing room and questions have been raised about the commitment of some players. This was always a possibility for a club like Leganés who have grown on and off the field at an incredible rate and such growth often naturally entails difficulty in maintaining those values of hard work and effort that got them to the Primera in the first place.

They travel to Valencia and host Athletic club in the coming week and it is really hard to be optimistic if you’re a Pepinero.

Villarreal showing signs of solidity

I’m reluctant to draw any conclusions after Leganes’ truly awful showing last Saturday but the Yellow Submarine did show signs of being more organized and solid in defence, while having a strong physical presence in the midfield with the towering Vicente Iborra and André-Frank Anguissa flanking Santi Cazorla, who continues to glide along and play at a really high level.

Valladolid will be a test of Villarreal’s patience and concentration this weekend; they will dominate possession and create lots of chances but let’s see if they can avoid their tendency to fall asleep for disastrous five-minute spells.

Betis continue to refuse to do things the easy way

Their goalkeeper sent off after eight minutes in the opening league game against Valladolid; 1-0 down at home to Leganes before fighting back, and this past week we saw Betis give away a penalty while William Carvalho saw red all in the first 25 minutes.

The funny thing is that in the face of adversity Rubi’s men have responded really well and have played some nice football but these kamikaze starts simply have to stop. The powers that be at Betis would have been banking on at least seven points from a very kind run of opening home fixtures and find themselves on four – it has been a bad start.

A Sunday night classic

Sevilla v Real Madrid is now an undisputed top five game of the season in Spain and this weekend’s clash is no less fascinating, but perhaps for different reasons than before.

When looking at the H2H record, it would be difficult to find a fixture which produces a starker difference between the two annual meetings. The last four league meetings in Seville have seen four home wins with an aggregate score of 11-5 while, back in Madrid, the reverse fixture has seen Los Blancos stroll to a 15-1 aggregate win in the same period.

This weekend’s meeting is much more complex than those of recent years, however. We have Julen Lopetegui coming up against the man he replaced but who has since returned; the highly-rated left-back Reguilón – on-loan from Real Madrid – is free to play because of the absence of the famous ‘Clause of fear’; we now have on our hands what seems to be a considerably more solid Sevilla but, at the same time, a Sevilla which lacks that real goal threat of years gone by; and then there’s Real Madrid – where does one even begin?

A combination of injuries, bad planning, transfer market failure, loyalty to past-their-sell-by-date players and an overall lack of intensity within the squad are widely acknowledged as being the main reasons for Madrid’s poor start to the season and, just like last season, they are a complete mess.

Real have kept consecutive clean sheets once in 2019 and when you fail to replace your greatest goalscorer of all time, things are not going to turn out well. Surely, sheer pride will have Madrid up for this one but we know how Sevilla are going to start – fast.

The key to this game is where Lopetegui’s men can turn their early waves of attacks from wide areas into something tangible on the scoreboard because they were extremely wasteful when they hosted Celta Vigo a few weeks back.

While Zidane’s men lay down and accepted a truly woeful 3-0 defeat in Paris, where they failed to register a single shot on target for the first time in 578 games, Sevilla will undoubtedly be buoyed by their 3-0 win at Qarabag, but a long journey to and from ‎Azerbaijan is not ideal before such a big fixture.

History tells us to expect goals – the last five league meetings at the Sánchez Pizjuán have produced an average of 4.20 per game – and the way Madrid are defending it’s hard to disagree.

Enjoy the weekend.

Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) is an Irish journalist living and working in Madrid. A season ticket holder at Atletico Madrid and Rayo Majadahonda, he covers all things football in the Spanish capital, from Estadio Butarque to the Wanda Metropolitano.

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