Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 11/10
On Monday evening, Elche and Athletic Bilbao will face each other at the Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero in what will be the La Liga opener for the 2021-22 season for both teams. The only match of the competition played so far saw Valencia triumph over Getafe by 1-0 at the Mestalla on Friday, courtesy of a goal by Carlos Soler from the penalty spot.
One of those teams always happy with avoiding relegation from the Spanish top flight, Elche seem to have been very fortunate at the end of last season. They finished 17th, the last place to avoid the drop, just two points above Huesca in 18th. A repeat of that success will likely be all they’re hoping for.
Elche lost a number of players on free transfers this summer. Centre-back Dani Calvo, winger Victor Rodriguez, midfielder Omenuke Mfulu, right-back Miguel Cifuentes and midfielder Ramon Folch have all left without the club receiving anything for their services.
They were, however, able to sign centre-backs Enzo Roco and Pedro Bigas on free transfers too from Karagumruk and SD Eibar, respectively, but they paid fees for the arrivals of midfielder Ivan Marcone from Boca Juniors (€4m), striker Lucas Boye from Torino (€2m), and left-back Johan Mojica from Girona (€1.2m).
The squad under the command of Fran Escriba seems as well equipped as before, at least on paper. Whether they achieve the same result at the end of the campaign remains to be seen.
Escriba won’t be able to call upon midfielders Jony Alamo and Luismi. The former is out with a hamstring problem, while the latter has recently tested positive for COVID-19. Winger Pablo Piatti hasn’t been ruled out definitely yet, but he is recovering from a calf issue and isn’t likely to get 100% fit by Monday.
Marcone could make his competitive debut for the club alongside Raul Guti in the middle. The same goes for Bigas in the heart of defence.
Athletic Bilbao have a reputation of being a difficult opponent for the top clubs and have recently made great runs in the Copa del Rey. They won the competition 24 times in their history, and in the last two seasons they reached the final, losing out to Real Sociedad and Barcelona. They did, however, win the 2020-21 Spanish Super Cup.
But in the league, they didn’t do as well as they would’ve liked last term. They finished 10th, quite comfortable when it comes to relegation but unlike Elche, Bilbao will not have been too happy with that. They will be eyeing the gap to the top six and strive to earn a place in there.
Bilbao are rarely much active in the transfer market, seeking rather to develop youngsters or sign only Basque players. This summer they’ve brought in right-back Alex Petxa from Sociedad and promoted winger Nico Williams, midfielders Juan Artola and Benat Prados, as well as left-back Imanol Garcia de Albeniz from their youth setup.
De Albeniz has been sent out on loan to CD Mirandes straight away, along with winger Inigo Vicente. Winger Ibai Gomez and goalkeeper Iago Herrerin have left the club as free agents.
Left-back Yuri Berichiche and midfielder Peru Nolaskoain will be out of action for a long time yet. Right-back Ander Capa, winger Inigo Cordoba and striker Kenan Kodro are also expected to miss this clash through different injury issues.
Still, coach Marcelino has a number of quality players to choose from. Inaki Williams is likely to lead the line upfront, supported by captain Iker Muniain and Alex Berenguer, but it will be more difficult to pick a starting midfield. At a guess, Unai Vencedor and Dani Garcia seem the likeliest candidates to be in it.
There is a considerable gap in the quality of these teams, and with all due respect to Elche, Athletic Bilbao should have quite enough in their locker to leave with all three points in the bag.
Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 11/10