Two teams who will expect to be in the mix for a top-four finish in La Liga this season will lock horns on Thursday, with Real Betis welcoming Athletic Bilbao in Seville.
Real Betis are currently sixth in Spain’s top flight, boasting 24 points from their opening 14 matches, while Athletic sit fourth, also on 24 points from 14 games in 2022-23.
Real Betis have not been in competitive action since their 3-0 loss to Valencia on November 10, which proved to be their fourth La Liga defeat of the 2022-23 campaign.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side have won seven, drawn three and lost four of their 14 league games this season to collect 24 points, which has left them in sixth spot in the table, level on points with fifth-placed Atletico Madrid and fourth-placed Athletic, while they are just two points behind third-placed Real Sociedad.
The top two in Spain – Barcelona and Real Madrid – have pulled away from the chasing pack, but it does appear that the final two Champions League spots are open, with a number of clubs in the running, even dark horses in the shape of Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano.
Real Betis, who will be in Copa del Rey action against Ibiza Islas Pitiusas on January 5, have played six mid-season friendlies since the campaign was halted for the World Cup, including a 3-0 loss to Atalanta BC last time out.
Los Verderones recorded a 1-0 victory over Athletic in the corresponding game between the two teams last season, while they have not lost at home to the Basque outfit in Spain’s top flight since December 2017.
Athletic were in Copa del Rey action on December 20, progressing to the next round of the competition courtesy of a 1-0 victory over Seastao River, with Raul Garcia netting the only goal of the contest.
The Basque side were also 3-0 winners over Real Valladolid in the league last time out, which left them in fourth position in the table on 24 points.
Ernesto Valverde’s side have played four mid-season friendlies since the success over Real Valladolid and have been victorious in all of them, including a 1-0 win over Udinese on December 17.
Athletic will be back in Copa del Rey action against Eldense on January 5, but they have a tough run of matches in the league over the next few weeks, facing Real Betis, Osasuna, Real Sociedad, and Real Madrid in their next four.
The Lions last finished fourth in 2013-14 to claim Champions League football, while they have been eighth, 11th, 10th and eighth in their last four campaigns at this level of football.
Real Betis will be missing both Paul Akouokou and Juan Cruz on Thursday through injury, with the former out with a muscular problem, while the latter has a hamstring issue.
Edgar Gonzalez is also out following his red card against Valencia last time out, which could open the door for German Pezzella to feature in the middle of the defence.
Borja Iglesias is the team’s leading goalscorer in La Liga this season with eight, and he is set to lead the line, while Luiz Henrique, Sergio Canales and Rodri should also feature in attacking areas.
As for Athletic, head coach Valverde could select the same XI that took to the field for the first whistle against Real Valladolid in the league last time out.
Gorka Guruzeta scored twice in the team’s last match before the campaign was halted for the World Cup, and the 26-year-old should again lead the line with support from Inaki Williams and Nico Williams.
There will be changes from the side that started against Sestao River in the Copa del Rey on December 20, with Unai Simon and Inigo Martinez among those set to return.
Real Betis possible starting lineup:
R Silva; Sabaly, Pezzella, Ruiz, Moreno; Rodriguez, Carvalho; Henrique, Canales, Rodri; Iglesias
Athletic Bilbao possible starting lineup:
Simon; De Marcos, I Martinez, Yeray, Lekue; I Williams, Sancet, Vesga, Herrera, N Williams; Guruzeta