Athletic Bilbao knocks off Sevilla to close in on Champions League berth
Athletic Bilbao have Champions League football in their sights after winning Sunday’s showdown for fourth place with Sevilla.
Markel Susaeta set the hosts on their way by scoring straight from a corner in the fourth minute, and Iker Muniain strengthened their grip on the game with an acrobatic finish early in the second half.
A disappointing evening for Sevilla got even worse when Diogo Figueiras was sent off with 18 minutes remaining, and moments later Ander Herrera then added further shine to a convincing home win by heading in a third, although Kevin Gameiro reduced the deficit with 11 minutes to go.
Sevilla went into the game three points behind Athletic and an away victory would have unseated the Basques in fourth, but now Ernesto Valverde’s side enjoy an almost unassailable six-point lead in the position, and a win next week at Rayo Vallecano will secure their place in next season’s Champions League.
Athletic have been imperious at home this season and once Susaeta had opened the scoring they never looked like letting their lead slip.
The forward whipped a low cross towards goal from a corner that eluded everyone and ended up in the back of the net.
Sevilla coach Unai Emery left talisman Ivan Rakitic on the bench and his team showed none of the strength and intensity that earned them a 2-0 win over Valencia the previous Thursday.
They sat and waited for the hosts and as a result created few chances in the first half, Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz quickly sniffing out the danger from Carlos Bacca and Gameiro respectively.
Instead Athletic were the dominant side, and could have been two goals up at half-time, Aritz Aduriz failing to convert two chances before the break.
So it was left to Muniain to settle the home side’s nerves, the young forward sticking out a leg to convert a looping cross from Andoni Iraola in the 54th minute.
Sevilla could only respond with half chances, Daniel Carrico heading straight at Iraizoz, and substitute Rakitic missing the target from the edge of the area.
Their bid to get back into the game was dealt a near-fatal blow with a second yellow for Figueiras, who was punished for protesting a decision by the referee to give Athletic a throw-in.
The hosts needed just a minute to seize their man advantage, Herrera connecting with another excellent cross from Iraola to head in the third.
Gameiro got the better of Iraizoz to notch a consolation goal, but Athletic were never in danger of losing their lead, and can start preparing for a return to the Champions League for the first time in 16 years.