Athletic Bilbao 3.75, Draw 3.25, Atletico Madrid 2.10 - Sunday 20:00 GMT
Atletico Madrid travel up to the Basque country having won seven of their last eight matches against Athletic Club in all competitions. But this trip north comes at a bad time for Diego Simeone’s side - whose form in La Liga has dipped lately, and who are still dealing with the fallout from the death of a Deportivo La Coruna fan in violence before a game three weekends ago.
Atletico appeared affected by a strange atmosphere inside their Estadio Vicente Calderon when slipping to a surprise 1-0 defeat to Villarreal last Sunday.
The very small crowd and 2-2 result in Thursday’s Copa del Rey draw with minnows L’Hospitalet was also not a good sign, even if everyone knew in advance that Atletico’s 3-0 away first leg win made progression a formality. However, even before the off-field issues arose recently, the reigning champions had lost two of their last four away in La Liga - at Real Sociedad and Valencia.
The team news is also not good for Simeone. Atletico could well travel north without their three best attacking players. Top scorer Mario Mandzukic and top assister Koke are both definitely out due to accumulation of yellow cards. Summer arrival Antoine Griezmann will make his first start since late October - even though his 3 goals in 15 La Liga appearances so far is also disappointing. Youngster Saul is to step in for Koke midfield.
“Both Koke and Mandzukic are very big players for us,” admitted Simeone at his pre-game news conference on Saturday. “We will try by bringing in Saul and Griezmann to make up for their qualities, they can bring something important to the team.”
Not that Athletic have been pulling up too many trees themselves lately - and were beaten 1-0 by lowly Cordoba in their last home game in La Liga. But that is just one of two defeats in their last 12 games in all competitions, with a horror show September and October having been mostly put behind them now.
Los Leones’ team news is mixed. Top scorer [by a long way] Aritz Aduriz is back fit again and should lead the attack. Borja Viguera scored the winner in Thursday’s dull 1-0 Copa del Rey win over third tier Alcoyano, and could keep his place in the XI. Midfield ‘pivot’ Ander Iturraspe and excellent young centre-back Aymeric Laporte are both suspended however, with Mikel San José and Carlos Gurpegi tipped to come in. Right-back Andoni Iraola is also missing injured.
“We want to end the year with a good taste in the mouth, as much with the result as the feeling from the team,” said Athletic coach Ernesto Valverde on Saturday. “Atletico are missing important players, but the mechanisms in their play won’t change.”
So visitors Atletico remain slight favourites for the game, but the gap between the sides has narrowed over recent times. Both coaches would like to head off for the winter break with a win, although a point apiece would not be the worst result for either team.
Predicted scoreline: Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Atletico Madrid at 6.50