This Football Sunday

The Basque Derby, Serie A’s fight for third and an understated, yet exciting clash in La Liga are the games to watch on Sunday.

Athletic Bilbao vs Real Sociedad

The Basques have never had it so good. Five teams from the region now play in Spain’s top division. Yet when it comes to Basque derbies, nothing comes close to the Euskal Derbia between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad. San Mamés is host to the first derby this year, with Athletic sitting pretty in sixth, two points ahead of the visiting Sociedad. Goals have been hard to come by in this fixture the past two seasons, but both teams have found the net consistently in this campaign. Athletic haven’t won against their bitter rivals in eight attempts. They’ll be looking to right that record in the battle for bragging rights in Basque Country.

Chievo Verona vs AC Milan

Not many would have picked either of these teams to make a run for the top three at the beginning of the season, but nonetheless Chievo and Milan find themselves in a position to go third in the table with a win in this encounter. The Bentegodi is a fortress for Chievo and it’s never easy for any visiting team against Rolando Maran’s men. Valter Birsa continues to assist and score for the Flying Donkeys and they will rely on his guile and trickery to catch Milan’s vulnerable defence off guard. Milan have already conceded 10 goals, but thanks to the poaching instincts of Carlos Bacca, the Rossoneri continue to pick up wins and points even they have not played well. It will also be interesting to watch whether 18-year old Manuel Locatelli can dictate Milan’s rhythm from the base of midfield now that Riccardo Montolivo is out until at least March. There’s lots of intrigue around this match and the result will give us some idea as to which team can make a sustained push for a European place this season.

Villarreal vs Celta Vigo

One of three unbeaten teams in La Liga alongside Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, Villarreal have started the season in a typically understated manner. Fran Escribá has overcome a contentious pre-season by adhering to the footballing principles of the Yellow Submarines. Playing with their trademark tidiness in possession, Escribá has also got the team defending in a compact manner. El Madrigal is not the easiest of places to score, but if any team can rip up the copybook it is Eduardo Berizzo’s enterprising Celta Vigo. After a shaky start, the Galicians come into this game with three wins on the trot, including an exhilarating 4-3 win over Barcelona last time out. While Villarreal will always be favourites at home, don’t count against Celta’s ability to tear up the script.

The Europa League is back!

The return of European football gets most fans excited about the Champions League. With the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, PSG and others involved, it is of course natural that Europe’s secondary club competition gets overlooked. However, this writer always looks forward to the Europa League knockout competition. Jurgen Klopp recently called the tournament a “Mini-Champions League”. Looking at the calibre of the remaining teams and some of the fixtures in the round of 32, his suggestion is not far off the mark. Some of these matches could quite conceivably be seen in next season’s Champions League, while others are ties between some great historic clubs.

Here are some ties that should the whet the appetite for all football fans:

Anderlecht (3rd in Belgian Jupiler League) vs Olympiakos (1st in Greek Super League)

Borussia Dortmund (2nd in Bundesliga) vs Porto (3rd in Portuguese Liga)

Fiorentina (3rd in Serie A) vs Tottenham (2nd in Barclays Premier League)

Saint-Étienne (4th in Ligue 1) vs Basel (1st in Swiss Super League)

Villarreal (4th in La Liga) vs Napoli (2nd in Serie A)

Galatasaray (5th in Turkish Super Lig) vs Lazio (7th in Serie A)

Marseille (11th in Ligue 1) vs Athletic Bilbao (7th in La Liga)

Shakhtar Donetsk (1st in Ukrainian Premier League) vs Schalke 04 (5th in Bundesliga)

Sporting Lisbon (1st in Portuguese Liga) vs Bayer Leverkusen (3rd in Bundesliga)

Athletic Bilbao 0 Villarreal 0

The sixth place team in La Liga hosting the fourth place team. One expected fireworks. In stead we got an anti-climax of a game. The onus was on Athletic to take the game to Villarreal. The home side needed a win to make the race for the last Champions League spot somewhat interesting. In stead, after this stalemate, Villarreal have a 10-point lead over Bilbao with 15 games remaining. In a league where away wins are still difficult, that is a substantial gap.

The Yellow Submarines will be happy with the point. Marcelino Garcia Toral’s men seemed to have learnt some important lessons from last season. They were well in the mix for fourth spot last season, but some soft defeats derailed that bid. This season, Villarreal may not score much, but they have certainly become tougher to beat, both, at home and on the road. The only concern that Garcia Toral will have is the injury to Mateo Musacchio. With Eric Bailly also currently sidelined, Villarreal will hope that their Argentine centre back is not seriously hurt. If most of the first team manages to stay fit, Villarreal should navigate their remaining fixtures while retaining that all-important fourth spot.
%d bloggers like this: