Tonight at 9pm Spanish time, Bilbao and San Mamés will once again welcome their newest Basque rivals Sociedad Deportiva Eibar. It is a match that to many would have been unimaginable only five years ago, and in many respects it is still a surreal game. To put it into context, even if the entire population of Eibar came to the game, San Mamés would still be around 20,000 people short of full capacity.
There is not much that can be written about SD Eibar and their incredible rise to prominence that has not already been put to paper. Only a few years ago, fans of Eibar would have been making the 30 mile journey across the Basque Country expecting to watch their boys take on Athletic Club’s second string side, Bilbao Athletic, rather than the top team. There have been a lot of trials and tribulations, as well as a certain degree of luck, along the journey for the Basque minnows, but that aside they remain an example to all the ‘small’ teams around the world. They have shown how far a club can go on limited resources as long as they have a plan and patience.
On paper, this fixture should be the footballing equivalent of a lightweight taking on a cruiserweight, but in reality that is not the case at all. Manager of SD Eibar, José Luis Mendilibar and his charges will go into this game full of belief, with every chance of picking up some points against their more illustrious neighbours.
Transitional phase in San Mamés
It has been a roller-coaster week full of contrasting emotions for Athletic fans. On the one hand, recent contract renewals for key young stars Iñaki Williams and Kepa Arrizabalaga have helped to quash the rumours surrounding their respective futures and bring a degree of certainty back to Lezama. On the other hand, Man City’s approach for talented French defender Aymeric Laporte, whilst not altogether surprising due to Guardiola’s attempts to buy the player in the past, has managed to bring spirits down a touch.
Minds are already turning to possible replacements. The club’s famous ‘Cantera’ policy means that choices are somewhat limited with Ignacio Monreal of Arsenal and Iñigo Martinez of Real Sociedad being touted as options to bring in. Many others though believe that the club should look inwards and promote from within, and it has been reported that academy players like Oscar Gil and Jon Rojo have been training the first team set-up in light of the situation. Futhermore, the return of Yeray Alvarez from his second bout of cancer, the emergence of Unai Nuñez and Mikel San José’s ability to drop into defence if need be should mean that the squad will have sufficient depth in that position to at least hold out until the summer, if Laporte should decide to go to Manchester.
In terms of squad issues, perhaps the most pressing long-to-medium term issue at Athletic is finding a replacement for the evergreen striker Aritz Aduriz, who has once again been providing the majority of the side’s goals this season. There is a lot of hope that sooner or later Iñaki Williams will be able to make the move inside from the wing in order to become a more central figure. Many fans are also quite pleased that current Bilbao Athletic top scorer Gorka Guruzeta has just signed a new contract but it remains to be seen if he is cut out for the very top level. Supporters are hopeful that one of them will be able to step up soon as outside options are extremely limited thanks to the transfer policy.
On another related side note, the game also offers Athletic fans a chance to see a future signing in action as Ander Capa, who will be joining in the club in the summer once his contract runs out, will most likely be lining up at right-back for Eibar.
There is no denying that Athletic Club are going through a transitional phase. Recent results and performances have improved and they haven’t lost in the league since a 3-1 defeat to Celta Vigo all the way back in November, but question marks remain. Yes, they are undefeated, but most of those results were draws and Kuko Ziganda, Ernesto Valverde’s replacement, has still not completely convinced all the Athletic faithful that he is the right man for the job. Nonetheless, there have been some positives for Ziganda as he has managed to bring through some young talent from their famous academy with Iñigo Córdoba and Unai Nuñez having been particularly impressive since their promotion to the senior squad.
Athletic Club will be going into the game tonight with a near full strength squad that includes, quite surprisingly, Aymeric Laporte. Just four squad members are out injured: Kepa is struggling with a foot injury, full-backs Oscar De Marcos and Mikel Balenziaga have some muscle issues whilst Iker Muniain is continuing his recovery from a long-term knee injury.
Rivals know Eibar represent a threat
In his pre-match press conference SD Eibar’s manager, Mendilibar, stated that he is expecting the match to be a ‘hard fought and open affair’ with both sides looking for a vital victory that could further their respective European hopes. Although they are without a victory in their last two games, SD Eibar are a team that no other takes lightly these days. Athletic will be expecting a tough game knowing that their close rivals could cause an upset if they are allowed to.
The Eibar squad is balanced and strong, and Mendilibar does not reckon their will be much movement during the rest of the window having already brought in central midfielder Pape Diop from Espayol and Fabian Orellana on loan from Valencia.
There are some absences for the derby game: striker Sergi Enrich recently underwent surgery on his knee, and defender Pedro Oliveira is still out alongside mercurial winger Pedro Leon. In brighter news, however, keeper Yoel Rodriguez has begun training again after a six month layoff, though it is not expected that he will make the match-day squad for tomorrow.
Athletic club has history on their side
Eibar are without a win against Athletic in the league since a 3-1 victory back in the 2015/16 season. The lastest match was played in the 2nd weekend of this season with Athletic coming out on top thanks to a solitary goal from Aduriz in the 38th minute.
Athletic Club’s strong record against SD Eibar and their strong home record sees them go into the games as slight favourites but an outcome that sees Eibar pick up some points at San Mamés would be far from shocking. Most importantly, the match is a celebration and symbol of the current strength of Basque football and we should be in for an exciting game. Eibar continue in their attempts to revise the century old status-quo of football in the region and the perennial giant of the nation, Athletic Club, will be hoping to put down the latest challenge in order maintain their spot as the alpha club of El País Vasco. Whatever the result, Basque football wins.
Dan Parry is a football writer based in Bilbao. You can read more of his work here.
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