Don’t believe the San Mames fright

News emerged last week that ongoing negotiations to extend Fernando Llorente’s current contract at Athletic Bilbao had hit difficulties, with some media reports suggesting he could even be heading for the exit.

It is believed the Basque club have offered their star striker around €60,000-per-week to commit himself to the club beyond the expiration of his current deal next summer, however, that amount is said to fall somewhat short of the €90,000 the player's agent and brother, Chus, believes he is worth.

Although these negotiation complexities are commonplace in modern football, the rumour mill soon cranked into action – most notably in the capital – where talk soon began of a deteriorating relationship between Llorente and Athletic Coach Marcelo Bielsa.

Many, in fact, went so far as to suggest the player has refused the offer from President Josu Urrutia as a direct result of his unhappiness with the Argentine tactician. Talk of tension between the two has been rife for a number of months, dating back to the end of last season when Athletic inexplicably ran out of steam to lose two Cup finals and limp over the line in the League.

Things are said to have come to a head in the aftermath of the dismal Europa League capitulation to Atletico Madrid in Bucharest. Sources claim Bielsa was left incensed after a number of senior players, most notably Llorente, questioned the gruelling training regime favoured by the Coach – believing it had left the squad fatigued and susceptible to injury.

Specifically, it seems players were less than enamoured with the lack of rest afforded during a season which saw Athletic play a record number of games, with concerns also raised over a noticeable increase in injuries during the campaign. Llorente himself suffered a number of niggling injuries last season, with many pointing to the intensity of Bielsa's training schedule and a congested fixture list as the key culprit.

Interestingly, the Pamplona-born striker has only just resumed training at Lezama after a slight hip strain that prevented him from taking part in Athletic's recent games against PSV Eindhoven and Zlask Wroclaw in Poland.

In Bielsa's defence, the team were spectacular on occasion last season and the former Chilean national team boss has certainly had a largely positive effect since breezing through the door at San Mames. However, for all those who witnessed his young side all but implode at the most critical point of the season last term, these current rumours may just carry some weight.

The speculation is something President Urrutia could do without, coming just four weeks after Bielsa's now-infamous confrontation with the Lezama building contractor, and just days before Athletic face Croatian outfit Slaven Belupo in the Europa League.

However, and conversely, it is a situation that may just pull the team together ahead of the new campaign.

Athletic have a tendency to close ranks when under media attack and are arguably the strongest club in Spain when it comes to handling criticism of internal affairs – after all, they are yet to spend any time out of the top flight in 82 years of La Liga football and have remained  loyal to their Basque-only policy for 113 years.

With little being said by the club, it is also highly likely the situation is far less significant than has been suggested. Llorente still has 12 months to run on his current contract and it is doubtful too much sleep will be lost just yet over the current hiatus in getting him to pen a new deal.

Focus instead will fall on safe navigation past Slaven in the Europa League, before Real Betis travel to San Mames in just over three weeks for the start of the domestic League campaign.

Despite the media speculation, expect Fernando Llorente to be leading the line for Marcelo Bielsa and his team.