Athletic Bilbao climbed three places up to fifth with a slender 1-0 win away at Getafe last weekend and though victory over fourth-placed Villarreal is unlikely to push them any further up the table, it would serve as a real boost to their Champions League aspirations by cutting the gap on the Yellow Submarine to seven points. Take the 2/1 available on Athletic to win to nil.
If performance data has anything to do with it, the Basques will get their wish - not just this weekend, but over the final 16 matches as a whole. Athletic are plainly a more dominant side overall, still playing catch-up from a tough start that put them up against Barcelona and Real Madrid in their first three home games, on the back of a taxing Europa League qualifying process.
Since settling into the rhythm of playing twice a week around late September, Bilbao have taken 31 points from 17 league matches on a shot ratio of nearly 57 per cent. Over the same period, Villarreal have returned the same number of points, albeit from the slim pickings of a 46 per cent share of attempts.
It’s a remarkable level of efficiency but the over-riding image is that of a bubble being blown to its limits, it surely can’t go on for much longer. The Castellon outfit are coming out on the right side of fine margins virtually every week, yet their schedule since the winter break has largely been a who’s who of Primera also-rans.
Next weekend, Athletic visit the Santiago Bernabeu, after which they will have played all of the teams above them away from home - indeed, all of the teams who currently have 30 points or more, which takes you all the way down to ninth. For them, you sense the best is yet to come. Europa League commitments aside, the Basques should only gather momentum from hereon.
Villarreal, by contrast, must play seven of the top eight away from home, plus a home game against Barcelona. Feel free to roll out all the old cliches about a bird in the hand and points in the bag, but we’re looking at a pivotal moment in the race for fourth place at San Mames this weekend and only a brave man would bet against Athletic making home advantage count.
In three seasons under Ernesto Valverde at their newly-built stadium, the Basques have won 25 out of 39 games against teams outside the top four, so this will go some way towards showing on which side of that line the Yellow Submarine fall. On three previous visits under Marcelino, they’ve been beaten every time: 2-0, 4-0 and 3-2, in the Copa del Rey a month ago.
Bilbao won both legs of that clash, following up with a professional 1-0 victory at El Madrigal a week later. And they can follow a similar blueprint here, by showing patience and quality in equal measure to force the breakthrough, and ruthlessness on the counter when Villarreal are forced to come looking for a leveller. Snap up some of the 8/1 available on the 2-0 correct score.
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