Spanish Super Cup holders Athletic Bilbao will be looking to reach their second successive final when they do battle with La Liga champions Atletico Madrid in their semi-final clash on Thursday night.
The winners at the King Fahd International Stadium in Saudi Arabia will face either Barcelona or Real Madrid in the final, which is due to take place on Sunday.
After cruising to a 5-0 victory over second-tier side Rayo Majadahonda in the Copa del Rey last week, Atletico Madrid were forced to settle for just a point in La Liga when they played out a 2-2 away at Villarreal on Sunday.
Strikes either side of half time from Villarreal defenders Pau Torres and Alberto Moreno cancelled out Angel Correa’s brilliant 10th-minute opener from the halfway line; however, Geoffrey Kondogbia scored a 67th-minute equaliser for the visitors, before receiving his second yellow card of the game in added time.
This result was another setback for Diego Simeone’s side in their quest to retain their top-flight title, with 16 points now separating themselves in fourth with league leaders and city rivals Real Madrid at the summit.
With the defence of their title seemingly all but over, Atletico may look to prioritise cup competitions for the remainder of this season, with the Spanish Super Cup their first attempt at silverware.
Los Colchoneros have a mixed record against Bilbao in recent meetings, as they have won, drawn and lost two games each in their last six encounters, including a goalless draw at the Wanda Metropolitano in September.
With a lack of home supporters to cheer them on at a neutral venue in Saudi Arabia, Simeone will need to be his exuberant self once again on the touchline to provide some sort of motivation for his players on Thursday.
Similarly to Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao followed up their Copa del Rey win over third-tier outfit Atletico Mancha Real by claiming just a point in La Liga, as they played out a goalless draw with Alaves on Sunday.
A frustrating result for head coach Marcelino means his side are now sitting four points behind the European places having played a game more than their rivals above them.
Bilbao are now to face a challenging run of fixtures across three different competitions, as their Super Cup tie with Atletico is followed by a Copa del Rey last-16 clash with Barcelona next Wednesday, before a La Liga trip to high-flying Rayo Vallecano just four days later.
Marcelino will be keen to begin this run of fixtures with a positive result in Saudi Arabia, and given that their fortunes have recently turned – winning three and drawing one of their last five matches prior to an eight-game winless run in all tournaments – the Spanish boss and his team will be confident of success on Thursday.
Bilbao, who managed to beat Atletico’s rivals Real Madrid at this stage last season, will be looking to become the first team since Barcelona between 2009 and 2011 to retain the Super Cup.
Atletico Madrid form (all competitions):
Athletic Bilbao form (all competitions):
We say: Atletico Madrid 1-1 Athletic Bilbao (Atletico Madrid to win 2-1 in extra-time)
A closely-fought contest between two evenly-matched sides, who could not be separated earlier this campaign, is set to be played out on Thursday with the tie potentially going beyond the 90 minutes.
The two teams will almost be at full strength in Saudi Arabia; however, the return of Suarez and Gimenez for Atletico Madrid may give them the slight edge to advance to the final.