Atletico Madrid Face Athletic Bilbao Challenge In Champions League Race

Atletico Madrid have the chance to keep Athletic Bilbao at arm’s length in the race to qualify for the Champions League when the sides meet on Saturday in La Liga. Diego Simeone’s stumbling Atletico, fourth, have a three point lead on Copa del Rey winners Athletic, fifth. It will be a high-intensity clash in the Spanish capital, with Atletico still licking their wounds from last week’s Champions League quarter-final elimination by Borussia Dortmund. They suffered a humiliating 2-0 defeat at Alaves last weekend, increasing the pressure ahead of Los Leones’ visit to the Metropolitano stadium.

Ernesto Valverde’s side arrive in the capital knowing a victory would give them a huge chance of returning to Europe’s premier competition for the first time since 2014.

This season Athletic have put Simeone’s team to the sword on all three occasions they have met, scoring six goals and not conceding any.

Athletic thoroughly outplayed Atletico in December in La Liga, winning 2-0 at San Mames.

“You can’t win titles like this, you can’t win leagues… Bilbao were a lot better than us,” noted Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak, who was similarly critical of his team after the recent Alaves defeat.

“We’ve entered a terrible dynamic,” noted the stopper.

“If we don’t improve it will be a very tough end to the season.”

The teams met again in the Copa del Rey semi-finals, with Atletico on top but falling to a 1-0 defeat, their first at home in over a year.

Atletico fans argued that their opponents had enjoyed more rest ahead of the game and that an unusually rash challenge from Reinildo Mandava gave away the penalty which Alex Berenguer converted to secure Athletic’s win.

However in the second leg Athletic dominated and romped to a 3-0 victory against Simeone’s flailing Athletic.

Athletic stumbled to a 1-1 draw against Granada last week but Atletico’s defeat turned that into a point gained rather than two dropped.

After winning the Spanish cup for the first time in 40 years to spark days of wild celebrations, a comedown was almost inevitable but Valverde needs his team to knuckle down again in the final weeks to make it a better season still.

“Someone will have to get them down from the clouds and focus on La Liga, and that someone is usually the coach,” said Valverde after the cup win.

Veteran Raul Garcia is retiring at the end of the campaign while captain Iker Muniain has also said he will depart, and taking the Basque side back to the big time would be the perfect note to walk out on.

Player to watch: Artem Dovbyk

The Girona striker is the division’s top goalscorer with 18 and will look to boost that tally at Las Palmas on Saturday as his side kick on in their hunt for Champions League football next season.

Key stats

24.7 – Valencia’s squad have the youngest average age in La Liga

81 – Inaki Williams leads the league for shots taken

24,054 – touches of the ball this season by possession-hungry Barcelona, more than any other side

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Friday

Real Sociedad v Real Madrid (1900)

Saturday

Las Palmas v Girona (1200), Almeria v Getafe (1415), Alaves v Celta Vigo (1630), Atletico Madrid v Athletic Bilbao (1900)

Sunday

Cadiz v Mallorca (1200), Granada v Osasuna (1415), Villarreal v Rayo Vallecano (1630), Real Betis v Sevilla (1900)

Monday

Barcelona v Valencia (1900)

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