Having enthralled Europe with their energetic brand of possession play last season Bilbao will be looking to improve on their somewhat disappointing 10th place finish. By reaching the Copa del Rey final, coach Marcelo Bielsa will have another crack at the Europa League where the challenge will be to balance domestic and continental priorities. This will be particularly relevant given the high-intensity style of football imposed by Bielsa makes significant demands on a small squad.
Bolstering the attacking options for the coming campaign are forwards Aritz Aduriz and Isma Lopez. Their capture could be particularly crucial if growing rumours linking Fernando Llorente with a move away from San Mames prove correct. With the 27-year-old’s contract due to expire next summer, it may make sense for the club to cut its losses.
The centre of further speculation this summer has been talented midfielder-cum-defender Javi Martinez, whose combative ball-playing ability has made him a target for Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Meanwhile, the financial demands of constructing the club’s new €160million stadium mean Bilbao will face an increasing struggle to hang on to both their prize assets. Following them out of the club’s cantera are younger stars such as Iker Muniain, Ander Herrera and Markel Susaeta who will have another opportunity to showcase their burgeoning talents.
Under the stewardship of enigmatic Coach Bielsa, supporters of Los Leones can look forward to a season of further excitement. The club may not have the resources to challenge at the top of the League, but one year on from the Chilean’s arrival the players will have fully adapted to his tactical approach and should be well placed to begin the campaign positively.
The difference maker – Fernando Llorente
A sensational season for the frontman whose intelligent hold-up play and 30 goals drove Bilbao to two finals. It was no coincidence that Bilbao’s late-season fatigue – no goals scored during their last six games – mirrored Llorente’s waning form as an exhausting campaign finally took its toll.
Best signing – Isma Lopez
Lopez made a bright start at San Mames netting twice as Bilbao overcame Slaven Belupo 3-1 to close in on qualification for the Europa League. A low-key acquisition from Segunda Division Lugo, his goals off the bench may help to reduce the reliance on Llorente.
His time? Iker Muniain
Technically gifted and hard working, the 19-year-old attacking midfielder possesses the ability to not only push Bilbao up the table but equally to become a regular member of the Spanish national team squad, having gained his first cap in a friendly with Venezuela in February.
Coach – Marcelo Bielsa
The future of the all-consuming Coach has been up in the air all summer following a rift with the club’s board of directors. Recently he has reportedly threatened to leave should the club decide to cash in on Martinez. As one of the most respected coaches in global football, his loss would be a huge setback to Bilbao’s hopes for the season ahead.
The big question…
If Bielsa, Llorente and Martinez are still at San Mames come the end of August, the club will have gone a long way to ensuring a successful season, but can they keep hold of all three?
Probable line-up: Iraizoz; Iraola, Aurtenexte, Martinez, Amorebieta; Herrera, Susaeta, Muniain, De Marcos, Iturraspe; Llorente.
IN: Aduriz (a, Valencia), Isma (a, Lugo)
OUT: Gabilondo (m,AEK Larnaka), Koikili (d, Mirandes), Ocio (retired).