They are not at battle stations yet, but alarms bells are definitely ringing. And the next two fixtures, Barça on Thursday at the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey and Real Sociedad in the league on Sunday is going to be decisive for Athletic’s European ambitions this year and Gaizka Garitano’s hopes of keeping his place in the dugout for another effort.
In two of these Athletic needed penalty shootouts to see off lower-league sides, Elche CF and CD Tenerife — awarded the Tenerife game was changed by keeper Iago Herrerin’s ancient sending-off and the following penalty.
The team has the third-best defensive record in La Liga, but they have serious problems in attack. Since their last victory against Granada on December 2nd, Athletic have not scored more than two goals in a match against a top-flight side. In actuality, because the 3-2 defeat to Real Betis on December 8th, they have just beaten a La Liga keeper three times.
This may stem from a lack of mavericks. Iker Muniain, arguably the only participant of that ilk in the squad, has not sparked consistently this year. His only assist in 15 appearances came from Espanyol last week.
Midfielder Unai Lopéz has three assists, but it is worrying that Capa has been engaged in more goals than everybody bar García.
Another problem is that Athletic do not currently have a natural number nine that’s always good enough, or fit. These are the choices:
He did make an impact as a sub against Getafe, among the few positive points of this match for Athletic fans. And it’s doubtful he will be able to play a full 90 minutes at this stage in his career.
Iñaki Williams needs to be the star ahead. He’s had his chances but failed to make them count. Recently, Garitano has played on the right-wing wing with Raul García through the center. Rulo does a job there, but it is not his best position.
Recently, academy merchandise Asier Villalibre has broken to the first-team, making his a goal-scoring debut against Espanyol. There’s lots of faith in him in the club. He burst onto the scene in third-team CD Basconia a couple of years back before some less successful loan spells. He was brought home and built up in the book side Bilbao Athletic, where last season he notched 23 goals from the Segunda B.
But he is relatively untested in the top level and it is not sure he’ll be the 20 goal-a-season ahead the club requirements.
Another first-team striker is Kenan Kodro. He is predominantly used as a consequence sub and has not been called up into the preceding two matchday squads. Gaizka Garitano does like to use for large games, so there is a possibility he will be on the bench against Barça. But, he will not be directing the line as a regular starter anytime soon.
So as to discover a solution, Athletic will look within. They have one of the very best Canteras in world soccer, and their affiliate programs are in good league positions. CD Basconia is 4th at the Tercera División Group 4 with not lost in 11 games, whilst the main reserve team Bilbao Athletic is second from the Segunda B Group 2.
Only 1 problem, all Bilbao Athletic’s natural strikers keep getting injured. Youngsters Ewan Urain, Gorka Guruzeta, and Andoni Tascón have just managed to begin ten games between them this effort.
With the transfer window shut, there is no possibility of registering now and the only alternative was Fernando Llorente anyways, who a huge group of fans still have not forgiven for the character of his death in 2013.
With nobody coming through the system and no one that can be found on the exterior, Gaizka Garitano will be hoping the likes of Williams, Muniaín and Aduriz can step their game up. The boss is under increasing stress. Already rumours abound of telephone calls into the recently clubless, fan-favorite, Ernesto Valverde.
Athletic Club isn’t in the company of sacking managers mid-season — Eduardo Berizzo’s conclusion was the first time in nearly a decade, it would be surprising if Garitano left until the end of the year, particularly with Athletic in no real danger of being relegated. But with Europe appearing ever more out of reach, February is very important for Garitano’s future prospects.
The Copa match against Barça precedes three successive Basque derbies, beginning with an away match at Real Sociedad on Saturday, a match made more significant because of the fact that La Real is three points before Athletic the league at 8th place. A success at Anoeta could place Athletic back into European contention.
In terms of the Copa quarter-final, there will not be many surprises concerning choice, but Athletic may bring in an additional defender in the form of Unai Nuñez and lineup with three in the back in an effort to cope with Barça’s array of attacking abilities.
This may also allow Berchiche and Capa to focus on attacking Barça’s full-backs. A weakness that they exploited in August when Capa spanned for Aduriz’s spectacular aim.
New supervisor Quique Setién has taken the side back into the possession-based style that served them so well under Pep Guardiola.
Athletic will be content to allow Barça to maintain the ball, whilst trying to get Iñaki Williams and Iker Muniaín in attacking their slower defenders on counter-attacks.
It is important for fans to find this on Thursday and the amped-up players must bring it in drive. San Mamés will help as Athletic appearance for in Barça’s faces.
This is a timeless fixture of Spanish soccer and it’s delivered some iconic clashes through the years. The Copa Final of 84 and its notorious post-match brawl, Aduriz’s hat-trick from the 2015 Super Copa, Lionel Messi’s wonder goal from the 2015 Copa Final and a lot more moments. There is every chance that this Thursday will make more memories.
Beating Barça, as hard as it might be, is a chance for Athletic to get their season back on track. Everything seemed so optimistic back in August when Aduriz scored his last-minute bicycle kick. This time around there is more tension. It is a critical moment in the season and a lot at stake. Everyone in Bilbao understands that this is a make-or-break point.
Another Aduriz stunner on Thursday might just be the boost Athletic need.