MX23RW : Monday, April 22 10:37:42| >> :600:117730995:117730995:
Jul 30, 2015 at 7.45pm UK at ​San Mames
Athletic Bilbao
2-0
Inter Baku
Eraso (12', 49')
FT(HT: 1-0)

Preview: Athletic Bilbao vs. Inter Baku

Sports Mole previews Thursday's Europa League third qualifying round first leg between Athletic Bilbao and Inter Baku at San Mames.

Athletic Bilbao's bid to make the group stages of the 2015-16 Europa League continues with a two-legged affair against Inter Baku.

On Thursday, Bilbao welcome the Azerbaijani outfit for the first leg and will certainly be looking to secure an advantage ahead of the return fixture.


Athletic Bilbao

Athletic Bilbao's midfielder Mikel Rico celebrates with teammates Athletic Bilbao's forward Iker Muniain and Athletic Bilbao's defender Mikel Balenziaga during the Spanish league football match Athletic Club Bilbao vs Club Atletico de Madrid at the San Ma© Getty Images

Bilbao actually competed in the group stages of last season's Champions League after securing a top-four La Liga finish in the 2013-14 campaign, but it was a fairly underwhelming journey as they bowed out after finishing third in their section.

A Europa League knockout spot was secured, but Ernesto Valverde's side were beaten 5-4 on aggregate by Torino – making it a European season to forget.

A poor start to last season's league campaign meant that more European football seemed unlikely in the immediate future, but a strong end to the season ultimately saw the Basque outfit finish seventh and qualify for the Europa League.

The new La Liga season does not actually start until August 23, but Bilbao are building towards the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona, with the first leg due to take place at San Mames on August 14.

As such, it has been a busy pre-season thus far. Bilbao opened their preparations for the new campaign with a 1-1 draw against Krasnodar, before losing 3-2 at Greuther Furth. Since then, they have beaten Tijuana 2-0, and drawn back-to-back games against fellow Spanish teams Real Betis and Real Valladolid.

It has not exactly been the busiest of summers in terms of transfers, but that is not necessarily bad news for Bilbao, who have thus far been able to keep hold of key players Aymeric Laporte and Aritz Aduriz, both of whom will be key in the season ahead.

Victory against Inter Baku – over the two legs - would leave Bilbao just one more fixture away from making the group stages this season. The Spanish club have previous in the competition having twice finished as runners-up – the last of which occurred in the 2011-12 season – and their supporters will be hoping for no shocks at this stage of the tournament.

Recent form: DLWDD


Inter Baku

Zurab Khizanishvili in action for Kayserispor in 2013© Getty Images

While a number of big teams are just joining the fight to make this season's Europa League group stages, Azerbaijani outfit Inter Baku's journey started back on July 2.

Zaur Svanadze's side beat Albanian side Laci on away goals in the first qualifying round, before overcoming Icelandic outfit FH 4-3 on aggregate in the next round. As a result, their journey has now taken them to Bilbao and in truth, it is a big ask for the club to advance any further into the competition.

Indeed, Inter Baku are a club that were only founded in 2004. They have twice won the Azerbaijani championship – 2007-08 and 2009-10 – but they have finished second in each of the last two seasons.

Their presence at the top end of the Azerbaijani league table has seen them regularly take part in early stages of both the Champions League and Europa League, but this is the first time that they have reached the third qualifying round having fallen at previous stage on each of their last six attempts.

Last season, they were eliminated in the second qualifying stage by Swedish side Elfsborg and the fact that they have even made this round of the competition is a big achievement for a club that are only 11 years old.

Like Bilbao, Inter Baku are also building up to the start of their league season, which gets underway against Khazar Lankaran on August 7. If they are to stand a chance in the return leg next Thursday then you do get the feeling that they will have to secure a positive result in Spain.

Recent form: LDDWD


Team News

Aritz Aduriz of Athletic Club Bilbao reacts during the La Liga match between Athletic Club and Levante UD at San Mames Stadium on August 30, 2014© Getty Images

Bilbao will still be without the services of Iker Muniain, who remains on the sidelines with a serious knee injury and is not expected to return until Christmas.

Valverde has no fresh injury concerns, however, and could indeed hand debuts to two new signings, with Gorka Elustondo and Eneko Boveda pushing for starts.

Further forward, it is expected to be as strong as possible for the Basque outfit, with Oscar de Marcos and Ibai Gomez operating either side of star forward Aduriz.

As for Inter Baku, Zurab Khizanishvili is their most famous player. The Georgian spent five years in the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers and also represented Newcastle United and Reading during his time in England.

Khizanishvili could be among three Georgians in the starting lineup, while Brazilian striker Dhiego Martins, who is also a new signing, should lead the line.

The club recently lost their top scorer from last season, however, with Spaniard Mikel Alvaro leaving on a free transfer this summer.

Athletic Bilbao possible starting lineup:
Iraizoz; Balenziaga, Laporte, San Jose, Elustondo; Rico, Benat; De Marcos, Susaeta, Gomez; Aduriz

Inter Baku possible starting lineup:
Agayev; Juanfran, Khizanishvili, Kasradze, Huseynov; Seyidov, Bayramov, Kvekveskiri, Aliyev; Martins, Sadigov


Head To Head

Unsurprisingly, this will be the first ever meeting between the two clubs.


Sports Mole Logo

We say: Athletic Bilbao 3-0 Inter Baku

Inter Baku must be praised for making it to this stage of the competition, but they face a seriously difficult talk in the third qualifying round.

At home, Bilbao are very strong and with Valverde ready to name a strong team, it could be a difficult evening for the Azerbaijani side.


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Who will win Thursday's first leg in Spain?

Athletic Bilbao
Draw
Inter Baku
Athletic Bilbao
68.9%
Draw
14.9%
Inter Baku
16.2%
Barcelona's Brazilian forward Neymar da Silva Santos Junior (L) celebrates scoring his second goal with Barcelona's Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez (C) and Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi during the UEFA Champions League football match semi fin
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