BILBAO – The towering San Mames stadium in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao is braced for the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal, pitting the local boys from Athletic Club against the Andalusian upstarts of Granada.
For Granada, the prospect of making the Spanish Cup final is a chance to make history, while Athletic Club Bilbao would see it more like a return to their rightful place in a competition they have won 23 times, although not since 1983/4.
The pair met in the semifinals of the 1969 Copa, which Bilbao went on to win in a competition perhaps only remembered by some of the more experienced season ticket holders.
This year’s campaign saw the team from the Basque country – which recruits exclusively from within the region – push past Barcelona in a hard-fought last-minute win sealed by Iñaki Williams.
That victory will put the wind in Bilbao’s sails as they welcome Granada to the San Mames on Wednesday evening.
Athletic do, however, arrive at the tie a bit worse for wear having not won a league game in regulation time since 1 December, when they won 2-0 at home against none other than Granada. One of those goals came from a penalty naively given away by Granada defender Domingos Duarte.
Bilbao coach Gaizka Garitano is waiting to see whether two of his most important names, Yuri Berchiche and Raul Garcia, will recover in time from muscle injuries that kept them out of the Basque derby against Real Sociedad over the weekend.
The team from San Sebastian won that one 2-1.
Williams also had to sit that game out through suspension but is set to run out against Granada. Dani Garcia and Iker Muniain will also be up for selection, although are set to miss the end of the week encounter with Osasuna, again through suspension.
All five are expected to start, but there is less certainty as to who will don the gloves, Unai Simon or Iago Herrerin, whether Garitano will play three in midfield or four, whether he’ll give prominence to Unai Nuñez or Asier Villalibre and who will provide back up to Dani Garcia, with Mikel Vesga a contender for that role.
Granada, currently 10th place in LaLiga, are looking for a good result if only to keep their options open as they head into the second led, which is set for 5 March.
Coach Diego Martinez is likely to replenish his roster that lost 1-0 to Atletico Madrid on Saturday.
Portuguese Rui Silva, who until now has not featured in the Copa, is set to retake his place. As will other key players who did not feature against the Madrid side, such as German Sanchez, Maxime Gonalons and Darwin Machis.
Alvaro Vadillo and Roberto Soldado are recovering from muscle issues but both are likely available for the trip north.
Granada battled past Valencia to earn a spot in the penultimate stage of the Copa.
They started the league season on a high and topped the table briefly at the beginning, but have since mellowed out.
Around 200 Granada fans are expected to make the trip to San Mames to experience the club’s first Copa semifinal for 51 years. An estimated 50,000 seats will host home fans.