A win for Athletic Bilbao at the San Mames keeps hold of 5th place, but leaves Basque rivals Real Sociedad facing an uphill struggle to qualify for the Europa League.
Early goals from Iker Muniain and Gaizka Toquero guided Athletic Bilbao to a 2-1 victory over fierce rivals Real Sociedad.
The second Basque derby of the season kicked off at San Mames with typical spirit, with the first few minutes characterised by fast, end to end play frequently broken up by some rough fouls. Both teams were seeking to immediately impose a physical presence on the pitch, and both were succeeding, making it increasingly likely that the referee would whip out a few cards before the half was through.
Few clear cut chances were created by either team in the opening 15 minutes, with players seemingly concentrating on elbowing and shoving their man rather than really looking for a goal. The best chance in these opening minutes fell to Real Sociedad, who twice shot wide from a practically unmarked position in the box.
It was Los Leones who drew first blood in the 18th minute, with Muniain scoring his fifth goal of the season after tapping in a deflected header from Fernando Llorente. Goalkeeper Bravo could not quite catch Llorente’s effort, inciting a scramble in which Muniain poached the ball at the far corner.
The goal marked a period of resurgence from a fired up Athletic, who came close twice more in as many minutes following Muniain’s goal. Some last ditch defending from a desperate Sociedad denied Toquero, but as wave and wave of attack from Los Leones smashed into La Real’s defence, a second goal was looking as likely as another yellow card.
Athletic’s second of the night came in the 28th minute, with the threat of Toquero finally proving to much for the visiting defence. Great control and a perfectly weighted pass from Llorente lined up the ball for Toquero to slam home into the bottom corner, leaving Bravo grasping at air. A second Llorente assist, and this time it was actually intentional. It took just one minute for an Athletic player to get a third goal - except this time it was put into their own net. A deflection from Javi Martinez put La Real on the scoresheet, his outstretched leg flicking the ball above the head of the surprisingly fresh faced Raul.
The excitement just kept coming - in the 33rd minute Sociedad were denied a contentious penalty appeal, which was then somewhat negated by their incredibly good fortune in Toquero being unable to put away a woefully misplaced back pass. La Real’s defence was looking increasingly suspect, something Toquero and Llorente were only too aware of. Some crucial interceptions were required to keep Los Leones’ lead at just one goal going into half time.
The second half was a more controlled affair, with both sets of defence becoming noticeably sharper. Neither side dominated in the first 20 minutes, the play moving from box to box as it had in the first half. Scoring opportunities were limited, but had it not been for a couple of poor finishes, Sociedad could have equalised and even overtaken. However, the efforts of Bravo prevented Athletic from increasing their lead a number of times, and, as time wore on, Raul showed his worth at the other end through his timely interventions and safe hands.
The determination from both sides showed no sign of abating, such is the intensity of the Basque derby. The match ended 2-1, having been tied up in the first half, depriving Real Sociedad of a chance to leapfrog the mid-table scramble and get that much closer to their European dream. Los Leones will be hoping that Villarreal stumble tomorrow night, which would make fourth place still improbable, but not impossible for Caparros’ men.