It’s an all Basque affair as la Real meet los Leones...
Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao may be local rivals, but they don’t boast a ferocious hatred of each other and instead have something akin to a mutual respect for their Basque brothers. That’s not to say Sunday night’s clash will be a tame affair, because both will be looking for the three points to take them to the borders of the chase for Europe.
La Real’s primary ambition this season is simply to earn another campaign in the top flight. They may be one of the few sides to have been crowned Spanish champions in the past, but those glory days are in the past and the Anoeta club have to be pragmatic about just what they can achieve this year. Safety will be built at home, and with four wins from their six matches in front of their own supporters a solid foundation has been laid.
Lows are not unheard of. There was definite disappointment after their last home encounter, from which Atletico Madrid stole a dramatic 4-2 victory. But Sociedad showed some character to bounce back swiftly and earn a 3-1 success over strugglers Sporting de Gijon.
“Maybe this Sunday was not the best game aesthetically, but it was the most practical and most effective,” coach Martin Lasarte mused after the fixture.
These qualities will be invaluable if la Real are to establish themselves as a top flight side. With a host of derby virgins in their squad ahead of the weekend - Mikel Aranburu and Mikel Labake are the only players to have enjoyed victory in this encounter previously – there should certainly be no shortage of desire, even if a lack of experience is problematic.
Athletic Bilbao have certainly not built their solid Primera Division reputation on pretty football. Instead, Joaquin Caparros has set-up his side in a rather brash fashion, favouring a direct style that is designed to upset their opponents. But there are technical qualities in this side, most notably in the form of Fernando Llorente, whose continued presence with los Leones is rather remarkable.
It was Carlos Gurpegui who grabbed the headlines last weekend, scoring the only goal of the fixture against Osasuna to give los Leones all three points and at the same time maintain their impressive record of scoring in every league fixture to date this term.
“Winning always makes you feel good, no matter what. That’s especially so against a rival against whom we were evenly matched,” Javi Martinez explained to Marca.
“We are excited and already thinking about the derby on Sunday. It's a game that we have been waiting on for a long time. But if we can win, that is real motivation. I don’t think anyone will want to skimp because we are all aware of what is at stake.”
Traditionally backed by a vocal and partisan home support, Athletic often struggle on the road. Caparros will certainly hope that the short journey to San Sebastian will allow his players to feel a little more comfortable and perhaps pick up maximum points.
Raul Tamudo, Antoine Griezmann and Paco Sutil are all injury doubts ahead of the derby. Tamudo and Griezmann are expected to feature, however.
Igor Gabilondo and Koikili are both doubtful for the weekend’s clash due to adductor problems. Both have been training, but neither has reached the pace of the main group. Ustaritz and Jon Aurtenetxe are definitely sidelined.