Real Sociedad vs. Athletic Bilbao
To those who are outside Spain this may seem just an ordinary La Liga fixture. But as I found out a few years ago, nothing could be further from the truth.
And the fact the teams are only one place apart in the table going into this clash will only provide added spice – if any were needed – to the occasion.
Both sides harbour genuine hopes of European qualification for next term which means we could be in for even more La Liga highlights than normal.
The stakes are always high and of course, both teams go into this on a massive high.
It is fair to say that these two are now the favourites for the 2020 Copa del Rey.
In midweek, Martin Odegaard scored against his parent club to help send Real Madrid out of the competition in a thrilling quarter-final.
Alexander Isak netted twice in two minutes including a superb acrobatic effort as Sociedad went 3-0 ahead, with the returning Mikel Merino adding Sociedad’s fourth in a 4-3 win.
In fact, the competition could be end up being a perfect send-off for Norwegian Odegaard, who has been very careful about what he has said with regard to his future beyond June 30.
He is enjoying himself in San Sebastian as Sociedad’s star player. Despite that, his dream is nevertheless to succeed at Real Madrid. Though he is not in a hurry, he prefers to be a starter at Sociedad than a substitute at Los Merengues.
Team news wise, Asier Illarramendi is injured, while there are doubts over David Zurutuza and Miguel Angel Moya. Meanwhile, it is unlikely that Merino will be risked with a second game in four days so soon after his return.
Of course, Sociedad were not the only team to cause a cup stir in midweek.
It was Bilbao who ended Barcelona’s hopes of reaching a seventh successive Copa del Rey final when a tight contest was decided in the third minute of stoppage time by Spanish forward Inaki Williams who headed past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
They are without the suspended Inigo Martinez and the injured Oscar de Marcos, although even those two absentees are unlikely to quash the excitement that last-gasp victory has generated among players and fans alike.
Based on Athletic Bilbao’s form, however, this should be a home win for Real Sociedad.
Bilbao are on a poor run of form in the league and have failed to win any of their last seven. Their away form is also terrible, managing just one win on the road this season.
Yet they have already shown they can be resolute on the road this term, including just before Christmas when they frustrated now leaders Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Of course, Sociedad have results of their own to cherish even before their midweek marvels at the same ground. And as a recent Basque derby has shown, matches like this can be a great leveller.
The balance of power has been all equal in the latest clashes between these two team.
Indeed, each side has won four of their previous 10 encounters with the other two ending all square.
Bilbao won the first meeting earlier this term, triumphing 2-0 at San Mames, courtesy of goals inside the first 28 minutes from Inaki Williams and Raul Garcia.
In this corresponding match last season, Sociedad ran out 2-1 winners with Mikel Oyarzabal and Willian Jose – a supposed target for Barcelona – on target before Garcia pulled one back late on.
Bilbao last won at Sociedad in March 2017 when Garcia and Iker Muniain scored the goals in a 2-0 success.