The month of October 2022 could quite possibly be the most jam-packed month of football we have ever seen. Only Friday 21st does not feature a Spanish team in action, with either La Liga or European competition to look forward to every day, that aside. In an attempt to finish the group stages of all three tiers of continental football before the World Cup, those involved will play midweek every week this month, once in the league and three European matches.
Could this extremely crowded fixture list pave the way for those not competing in Europe to capitalise on overworked players from their league rivals? We explore the possibility of Spain’s current form team, Athletic Club, making the most of this, having failed to qualify for any continental competition last season.
Flashback to one year ago and if you were to tell an Athletic fan that in a single month they’ll face Sevilla (A), Atlético Madrid (H), Getafe (A), Barcelona (A) and Villareal (H), it would have left them feeling fearful for what was to come. A topsy-turvy season led them to a respectable 8th placed finish under manager Marcelino Garcia Toral, who decided to step down in June.
This opened the door for former player and manager, Ernesto Valverde to return to San Mamés for his third spell in charge. Since his reinstatement, Athletic have gone from strength to strength. Sitting pretty in third place, they have only lost one league game – their best start to a campaign in the 21st century.
Dissecting those five matches through the lens of this revived team of 2022-23, and you see a real opportunity for Ernesto Valverde’s side to cement themselves as top four contenders.
They have been taking no prisoners in recent games, putting four past Almería at the weekend, as well as four past Elche and Cádiz. Rayo Vallecano escaped with just the three conceded. The lethal combination emerging between brothers Iñaki and Nico Williams, plus the mature performances of starlet Oihan Sancet, have meant that only Real Madrid and Barcelona have outscored them this season.
Alongside the return of Valverde also came fast paced football to San Mamés, and fans are all for it. The average attendance of the first five home games of this season has seen an increase of 3,500 people per match compared to the last five home games of last season.
Tough or tired opposition?
A key factor to the prospective success of Bilbao this month will be that apart from Getafe, all of those sides stated above are involved in European competition and thus will play a whopping 8 games during this time frame.
Taking a further look, we see a first game against Sevilla – in crisis mode – who will be facing Borussia Dortmund on either side of this fixture. A matchup in Andalucía, that given the recent relentless attacking displays of Valverde’s side, could lead to a stream of goals coming through Sevilla’s drain-like defence at the Sanchez-Pizjuan.
Following that, San Mamés will welcome Atlético Madrid, a team who haven’t won away in Bilbao since 2017. A real opportunity for Athletic to extend this record awaits, with Atleti looking to navigate their way out of a sticky Champions League group in the week leading up to their trip up north.
Next up, Getafe, who may be the easiest game Athletic Club will face in October on paper, but encounters over recent years between these two sides have resulted in draws on three of the last five occasions. Although, this season you would probably think the Williams brothers and company have too much for their Madrid based rivals who have already conceded on average more than 2 goals per 90 minutes this season.
Moving onto the toughest game on Los Leones’ list – a trip to Camp Nou to face the current La Liga frontrunners Barcelona. They will have to hope Valverde’s old club have hit a bump in the road by then. So far, very good for Xavi Hernández’s side but this fixture could be a good opportunity to rest some key players after the trials and tribulations that two clashes with Inter Milan and an El Clasico will put them through before Athletic get there. Not to mention a crucial Champions League game against Bayern Munich lurking on the horizon in the days after. Athletic haven’t managed to record a win in the Catalan capital for 21 years, so the Basque outfit will be eager to put that behind them this time round.
To round off this challenging yet potentially break-through month of October, Los Vascos will be looking to give Villareal fright on the eve of Halloween. Against yet another club that will be in action across the continent, Athletic have the further advantage that their visitors will be coming off the back of a Thursday night fixture in their quest for success in the Europa Conference League.
Pre World Cup advantage on the horizon?
All in all, October could be the month where we start to take Athletic Club’s exciting start rather seriously. A maximum of 15 points are on offer and double figures is a seriously achievable target. Theoretically, ten points from these five fixtures would send them into November on 26 points, putting them top of the league at that same stage last season.
Of course they will have to maintain their impressive high-scoring form, but they may also need a little bit of fortune and hope their busy opponents decide to rest key players for their European adventures. Could we see a gap starting to emerge between this historic Basque club and the rest of the top four hopefuls come the World Cup? Either way, October will be a pivotal month.
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