Athletic Bilbao became the first Spanish team to begin their preparations for the upcoming season, when their pre-season training camp kicked-off on July 2. Aside from Spanish European Championship winners Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente, the entire squad assembled at their Lezama headquarters. The Basque outfit will have an eye on their Europa League preliminary round play-off in less than a month.
The Bilbao side will be eager for a repeat of last season’s outstanding success, which saw them reach both Europa League and Copa del Rey finals. Coach Marcelo Bielsa employed a dynamic style of play that involved high energy levels – by constantly pressurising and exhausting the opposition for possession, they would then look carve open opposition defences through pace and positional interplay between most players. The approach famously shocked Manchester United, who they beat on their way to the final of Europe’s secondary competition.
However their own style eventually caught up with them. Having played over 60 games prior to both finals, Los Leones simply had nothing left to give and looked toothless throughout last May. Their electric approach depleted them, and the Basque side couldn’t muster enough to challenge either Atletico Madrid or Barcelona in respective finals.
Bielsa and his coaching staff will be well-aware of their players’ deficiencies this time around. Over the past few days the training has revolved around long runs in the surrounding area and prolonged periods of stretching – as of yet not a single ball has been touched.
Over the next month friendlies have been organised in a bid to have the players fully match fit before the beginning of August. Bilbao will face Raja Casablanca in Morocco in two weeks, before participating in the Polish Masters competition in Wroclow. There they will face Slask Wroclaw, Benfica and PSV Eindhoven in a two day event.
Their Europa League play-off games will take place on the August 2 and 9, with an aggregate victory over both legs taking them through to the play-off round, where another two-legged win would see progression to the group stages. The League campaign will likely have kicked off between the play-off round’s two legs, making for a congested start to Athletic’s season.
Going into both competitions, Bilbao be conscious that the element of surprise surrounding their style of play will almost certainly be gone. This means they will have to be even physically fitter to execute it. The next few weeks will be vital, and it’s essential that training coach Luis Bonini has the entire squad ready. Athletic Bilbao will have over a month of preparation more than most other League sides, and they are going to need it.