Villarreal v Athletic Bilbao – El Madrigal at 19:45 live on Sky Sports
With Sevilla running out of gas and nose-diving as the 2016/17 season reaches its climax, there could be an opportunity for a fringe side in Spain to sneak into the top-four and claim an unlikely Champions League qualification place.
Friday’s crunch clash at Estadio de la Ceramica between Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao features two clubs with the potential to overhaul the current fourth-placed side but victory in the weekend curtain-raiser could be crucial.
Overdue win for Villarreal
Villarreal collected a much-needed win last time out when overturning Real Betis 1-0 on the road. Adrian Lopez, on his first start since February, struck two minutes into the second-half as the Yellow Submarine snapped a two-game losing run.
Head coach Fran Escriba was understandably frustrated by his team’s performance when being surprisingly beaten 3-2 by Eibar in their last home outing. However, the hosts six-game form features four triumphs with three clean sheets recorded in five encounters.
Villarreal rotated their team in midweek and should return to full-strength for this fixture. Roberto Soldado and Cedric Bakambu are expected to start up front after Adrian and Nicola Sansone played in midweek with Samu Castillejo, Manu Trigueros, Bruno and Jaume Costa all back in the fold here.
Athletic hitting form
Athletic Bilbao have picked up maximum points from four of their last five La Liga matches with their form particularly impressive since their 2-0 Basque derby victory over Real Sociedad at Anoeta. Les Leones now trail their hosts by a solitary point pre-match.
Boss Ernesto Valverde also made charges in midweek but Inaki Williams and left-back Mikel Balenziaga should both return to the team here as Athletic bid to extend their impressive recent streak. However, Raul Garcia is doubtful.
When beating Espanyol on Tuesday evening, veteran striker Aritz Aduriz bagged a brace to take his season tally to 12. The 36 year-old was denied a hat-trick in the closing stages when his close-range effort was deflected on to the crossbar.
Hard to find the faith in poor travellers
Bilbao took top honours when the teams locked horns in November but that triumph was only Les Leones’ fourth in 22 La Liga duels with Villarreal and the visitors arrive without a victory here since 2004.
What’s more, Athletic have claimed only four away wins this season (W4-D2-L8) and no top-flight side has scored fewer goals on their travels this term (11). Considering Villarreal have W8-D3-L4 on home soil in La Liga, odds of 2.40 on the hosts covering a -0.50 Asian Handicap hurdle appeal.
The Basques have lost eight of their last 10 trips to top-six teams and been beaten by at least a two-goal margin in nine of their previous 16 away days at top-six sides in La Liga. Athletic have failed to score in five of their last seven games as guests and appear vulnerable here.
The Yellow Submarine tend to be fast starters at the Estadio de la Ceramica, scoring the opening goal in 10 of their past 14 outings here, and an early goal could put Athletic on the back foot.
Asian Handicap Recommendation: Villarreal -0.50 Asian Handicap at 2.40
Prices correct at time of writing.