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It appears to be 2021/22 all over again for Rayo Vallecano who, for a second consecutive La Liga (LL) edition, appear to be squandering another golden opportunity to qualify for UEFA competition. In a potential repeat of last season in which they converted fourth place at Christmas into a bottom-half finish, three consecutive winless outings against bottom-half opposition (D2, L1) have left them holding onto sixth place by goal difference only ahead of the round.

Now without a half-time lead for six consecutive LL home matches (W2, D2, L2), it has been almost four months since Vallecano’s first and only home LL win against any club beginning this round 14th or higher (D2, L3). That understandably leaves many questioning how they will find three points against Athletic Bilbao, a top-half opposition with their own ambitions for a long overdue return to European football.
Whilst Vallecano’s own form will be their main concern, Athletic’s recent struggles leave this contest wide open. Ernesto Valverde’s side have suffered five losses from their last seven LL fixtures (W2) and thus have, like Vallecano, struggled to prevent the top five clubs from breaking away in the standings. Their struggles were displayed again last weekend after falling 3-2 at home to Girona, meaning no team has recorded more losses as a LL pre-match favourite inside 23 rounds than Athletic (W9, D5, L5).

A 1-0 Copa del Rey semi-final first leg loss away to Osasuna during the week further hurt their chances of success in 2022/23, and Valverde lamented his team’s struggles to “control the game” that are in part due to an inability to establish an early advantage. After opening the scoring in just one of their last nine LL matches, Athletic may have to scrap for the points, as they did in their previous LL away win (2-1 at Valencia) when coming from behind.
Players to watch: Vallecano’s most recent LL win was their fourth in which Álvaro García found the back of the net between the 40th and 65th minute. Athletic will be hoping Oihan Sancet will be on the scoresheet, as he was in their last LL win as well as the reverse H2H (W 3-2) this season.
Hot streak: Ernesto Valverde has won his last six personal meetings with Vallecano.