Fernando Llorente and the Spanish public must have been desperately scratching their heads and wondering what exactly the Basque striker must have done to upset La Furia Roja Coach Vicente Del Bosque last June. While the Spanish national team successfully defended their European Championship crown in emphatic fashion, the Athletic Bilbao forward watched on from the sidelines throughout. Supporters and pundits alike criticised the side’s reluctance to play with an apparent out-and-out striker.
Llorente had a magnificent season in 2011-12, with a total of 17 successful strikes in 32 League appearances for Bilbao. In La Liga, 10 of those goals were headers, three more than any other player in the competition. Meanwhile in Europe, the burly forward managed a reputable seven goals in 15. His ability in aerial duos and from set pieces is unprecedented in Spanish forwards these days.
The time spent contemplating on the bench in Poland and Ukraine, and a trivial taste of immense success might have been part of the reason behind Llorente’s confirmed decision not renew his contract with Bilbao. Club President Josu Urrutia frustratingly admitted the 27-year-old was in search of different type of competition with a higher chance of prosperity. The Lion King’s current deal has a year left to run, meaning the Basque outfit are facing the prospect of almost certainly selling the player this summer, to avoid him walking away next year on a Bosman.
Under the watchful eye of acclaimed Argentine Coach Marcelo Bielsa, Los Leones entertained Europe and won over neutrals by beating the likes of Manchester United in style en route to the Europa League final. Their pressing style and teamwork ethic was revolutionary, despite eventually finishing runners up to a concrete Atletico Madrid.
But, after a highly successful year, Bilbao’s pre-season has been nothing short of a nightmare. Bielsa has been at war with the Athletic board over the delay to renovations the club’s Lezama training ground and there have been strong whispers from the Basque country that the former Chile boss will be forced out if results go sour early on. Influential players such as Javi Martinez, Ander Herrera and Iker Muniain were all involved in Spain’s disastrous Olympic campaign, and have missed out on vital preparation with their club.
Following the announcement with regards Llorente, Juventus have become the early front runners to grab his signature. The Italian champions have spent the summer in search of a top class striker, as Mirko Vucinic and Alessandro Matri have been judged to not be of the pedigree of a Champions League challenging forward. Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie looks set for a switch to the red side of Manchester, and Stevan Jovetic has fallen off the club’s radar at Fiorentina.
The Old Lady’s Director General Beppe Marotta confirmed his side’s interest in the burly forward when talking to the Italian media: “We are negotiating to bring him [Llorente] here, but it's not an easy process because Athletic don't want to sell him.”
All the signs are pointing to a tough season for Bilbao, and so perhaps the time has finally arrived for the 27-year-old lion to find a new pack.