20.00 BST, Friday 13th April, Montilivi (Girona, Spain)
Newly-promoted Girona have exceeded all expectations in their first season in the top flight. The Catalan club are still in with a chance of securing European football and sit in 8th place, only three points off the top six. Avoiding relegation would have been the aim back in August, yet Pablo Machin’s side have the UEFA League firmly within their sights.
Girona have found things difficult of late and have failed to win in their last three games. Last week’s 5-0 loss to Real Sociedad was unexpected and they will do well to recover from the psychological blow of such a heavy defeat.
Real Betis have managed to transform themselves from the entertaining yet inconsistent outfit that they were during the first half of the season, into a focused side with the top six within their reach. Quique Setien’s chargers are 5th in La Liga and look set to return to European football for the first time in four years.
The Seville based club are in excellent form, winning their last four La Liga matches. They have only lost twice in their last ten games and are looking an increasingly dangerous prospect. If Betis can maintain their late season momentum, then they will surely seal an impressive top five finish.
Last Time Out
Real Sociedad 5-0 Girona (La Liga)
Girona produced an awful away performance against Real Sociedad last weekend in what surely constituted their worst display of the season.
The home side took the lead in the 12th minute, after Sergio Canales found himself with acres of space in the box before turning smartly to score.
An even more embarrassing defensive lapse allowed Adnan Januzaj to score the hosts’ second after 35 minutes.
The visitors could not sort themselves out after half time and further loose defending allowed Mikel Oyarzabal to slide in and finish in the 71st minute, before a comical goalkeeping error allowed him to grab his second with five minutes left to play.
Further emphasis was added in the 88th minute, when Juanmi Jimenez comfortably slotted home his side’s fifth of the day.
Real Betis 2-0 Eibar (La Liga)
Real Betis took a significant step towards securing Europa League qualification with an impressive win against a solid-looking Eibar outfit.
The home side looked by far the more dangerous attacking prospect and took a deserved lead through Sergio Leon in the 21st minute.
The pressure proved too great for Eibar after the break and the visitors were unable to respond following Anaitz Arbilla’s woeful own goal after 50 minutes.
Pablo Machin will be without the services of left back Carles Planas (hamstring) who is still a few weeks away from full recovery.
There are also doubts over the fitness of midfielder Douglas Luiz, but Girona should be able to pick an unchanged lineup on Friday night.
Real Betis Lineup
Betis have a number of players carrying knocks and Quique Setien will be careful not to risk serious injury to his players ahead of the final run-in.
Wingers Antonio Sanabria (meniscus) and Francis Guerrero (thigh) are both carrying knocks and are yet to return to full training.
Defender Jordi Amat will miss out through suspension which may necessitate a defensive reshuffle.
Goalkeeper Antonio Adan (groin) and centre back Zouhair Feddal (achilles) are both out for the remainder of the season.
Key Battle: Cristhian Stuani (Girona) vs Marc Bartra (Real Betis)
Middlesbrough fans will surely be stunned by the sparkling form shown by striker Cristhian Stuani this season. The Uruguayan scored 11 goals in 59 appearances at the Riverside but has already scored 17 in 25 games this season for Girona.
The 31-year-old carries an imposing physical presence and is particularly threatening at the set-piece. The reliability of his hold-up play has allowed his side to hold their own against apparently superior opposition and he was integral to Girona’s 2-0 away victory against Villarreal last month. Stuani has worked his way back into the national side and will be keen to finish strongly and secure a place in Uruguay’s World Cup squad.
Centre-back Marc Bartra has had a phenomenal impact since his January move from Borussia Dortmund. Before his arrival, Betis had conceded 44 goals in 21 games and were languishing in 13th place. Since his signing they have conceded only nine times in 10 games and they have surged into the top five.
The Spanish international has brought much-needed composure to the backline and Betis are now far less likely to collapse under sustained attacking pressure. He is also comfortable on the ball and the 27-year-old often sparks creative moves from the back. If Real Betis are to seal a top five finish it will be in no small part down to the efforts of Marc Bartra.
Girona’s defensive struggles
If Girona are to give themselves a chance of European qualification, then they need to sort out their defensive problems quickly. They have conceded 12 goals in their last three games, including a 5-0 thumping at the hands of Real Sociedad.
Only six teams in La Liga have conceded more times than Girona this season and the Catalan minnows are liable to experience defensive collapses against the more celebrated sides in the league.
Both wing-backs tend to play very high up the pitch which often leaves their back three dangerously exposed. Machin must ensure that his side’s endless enthusiasm going forward is matched by defensive focus.
Setien’s balancing act
Real Betis have been thrilling to watch this season and entertainment is always a guarantee when Los Verdiblancos take to the field. They have the fifth best attacking record in the division as well as the third poorest defensive record. Setien’s approach of throwing caution to the wind has proved enough to unsettle some of the more established sides in La Liga.
For the first half of the season this approach secured little in the way of points as Betis often found themselves on the wrong side of high-scoring encounters. Since the winter break, however, Setien has managed to persuade his team to play with a more solid defensive structure, helped greatly in this task by January signing Marc Bartra.
Betis have found the defensive robustness to balance their wonderful attack and may well be rewarded with a place in European competition.
Prediction: Girona 2-2 Real Betis
This match should provide plenty of entertainment as both sides tend to prioritise attack over defence.
Girona have looked solid at home this season and have enough going forward to worry Betis. Cristhian Stuani is an important weapon and he could exploit a rotated opposition defence.
Real Betis, however, are very confident in attack at present and are certainly able to match anything that Girona might throw at them. A close game may well be decided by a moment of madness or brilliance from either side.
Will Real Betis take another stride towards European football?
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