After eliminating English giants Manchester United from the Europa League in superb style on Thursday night, Athletic Bilbao return to League duties on Sunday with a match which is arguably of equal importance to that of their latest European escapade.
Los Leones are hovering outside the European spots of the Spanish Primera Division, waiting to capitalise on any slip-ups from Malaga, Levante and Osasuna and break into the top six. But Marcelo Bielsa’s men face an extremely difficult task this weekend as they host a Valencia side which cannot afford to drop any more points if they wish to hold onto third place.
Los Che are currently just four points ahead of fourth placed Levante and are in serious danger of letting slip that third place which they have held for 15 consecutive weeks.
Both sides are struggling to find any consistency at this crucial stage of the season and since the turn of the year have been dropping points in games from which they would be expected to collect maximum points.
This game comes straight after these teams progressed into the quarter-finals of the Europa League but both will be anxious to ensure qualification for continental competition next season via their league positions and this game is crucial in their campaigns. Rivals Levante, Espanyol, Osasuna and Atletico Madrid all face tough but winnable games this weekend as they line-up against Villarreal, Racing Santander, Real Zaragoza and Mallorca respectively, whilst Malaga face a difficult test on Sunday, taking on Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu – making this weekend an incredibly important one in both the battle for Europe and that of survival.
Bilbao’s star striker Fernando Llorente was substituted on 40 minutes after giving his side the lead against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men and revealed after the game that he had picked up an injury during last week’s defeat to Osasuna, casting doubts over his inclusion in Sunday’s fixture.
“I got hurt in Pamplona on Sunday,” the Spain international is quoted as saying in Marca. “I’ve tried to recover but didn’t have enough time. I played for as long as I could [against Manchester United].”
He continued: “Now we must recover because on Sunday there is another tough game against Valencia and we have to see if we can keep playing well.”
This game could have a lasting effect on the remainder of either side’s campaign. The winning side would receive a vital boost in confidence before they continue their run in to the end of the season – a difficult period for both sides with Bilbao facing Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla in the next few weeks whilst Unai Emery’s side meet Levante and Real Madrid. Needless to say, this tie could decide which European competition – if any – these sides are playing in next season.
17.00 Getafe v Real Sociedad
17.00 Granada v Sporting Gijon
17.00 Zaragoza v Osasuna
19.00 Sevilla v Barcelona
21.00 Rayo Vallecano v Real Betis
11.00 Levante v Villarreal
15.00 Mallorca v Atletico Madrid
17.00 Athletic Bilbao v Valencia
20.30 Real Madrid v Malaga
20.00 Espanyol v Racing Santander