Sevilla v Espanyol
Thursday evening’s early kick-off could have a big influence upon the race to avoid relegation, but fortunately for Sevilla, the impact of coach Jose Luis Mendilibar means that they have almost certainly escaped the equation as they now sit 10 points clear of the bottom three with six games to go.
Monday’s surprise defeat to Girona was Mendilibar’s first in charge and ended a seven-game unbeaten run that saw Sevilla climb away from the bottom and reach the Europa League semi-finals. Despite that, it was a bizarre game in which Sevilla had 2.19 xG compared to Girona’s 0.78, and so it could be considered a blip.
The pressure is on for Espanyol, who remain two points adrift from safety in the bottom three despite their 1-0 win over Getafe at the weekend. That ended a run of eight games with only one point to celebrate, but failed to convince many that the Pericos have what it takes to survive, needing a penalty to overcome the Azulones.
That result was also only the second time that Sevilla have been beaten at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán since November, and home advantage will play a huge factor against an Espanyol team who have not beaten a side outside of the bottom three away from home since September.
Udinese v Napoli
Jitters got the better of Napoli last time out as they failed to wrap up what would have been the earliest-ever Serie A title win at home to Salernitana, so they’ll be hungrier than before to get the job done in Friuli-Venezia Giulia on Thursday night. Results elsewhere may well see them start as champions in Udine, but either way, they’ll be desperate to claim all three points and enjoy the celebrations.
Champions-in-waiting for some time now, Napoli have shown themselves capable of beating anybody in Italy this season, and they already edged Udinese 3-2 in Campania earlier in the campaign. That came when the Zebrette’s form was a lot better than it is now, and they’ve lost two of their last three and won just once in their last five.
Although Napoli themselves have been stuttering somewhat as they get toward the finish line in this historic season, expect them to be driven on by the feelings of disappointment that they and the city of Naples felt on Sunday with their failure to win against Salernitana. Udinese are likely to play no part more than that of also-rans in the Serie A season, and also on Thursday night.
As well, expect a lot of Napoletani to pack out the Dacia Arena and for celebrations to be in full swing by full time on Thursday.
Athletic Club v Real Betis
Two teams chasing Europe come face to face off the back of disappointing weekend results, with Athletic Club and Real Betis both being beaten, 1-0 to Sevilla and 4-0 to Barcelona respectively. With Athletic only two points behind Betis in the chase for sixth place, this has the potential to be a real six-pointer.
The likely consequence of that is that we see two teams who are unwilling to risk losing. Both Ernesto Valverde and Manuel Pellegrini tend to err on the side of caution in such high-stakes occasions, as can be seen in Betis’ similarly important 0-0 draw with Real Sociedad just two weeks ago and Athletic’s 1-1 draw with Mallorca on Monday.
Neither of these teams have scored in open play in either of their last two games each, with a combined four shots on target throughout those 360 minutes of action. Athletic Club have been under 2.5 goals in 53% of their games this season, while it’s exactly half for Real Betis, but a whopping 69% of games at San Mamés have come in at under 2.5 goals, ranking it as the third lowest-scoring arena in LaLiga this season.
Given injuries to Iker Muniain and Nabil Fekir, the playmakers of both sides and Borja Iglesias, Betis’ leading scorer, it looks highly likely that this game could end in a tense and drab affair with few goals to be found for either side.
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