Athletic exorcising their ghosts

Just eight months ago Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid were seen very much as equals as they headed to Bucharest to contest the Europa League final, but their paths have diverged wildly since.

Headed into their clash in the Romanian capital last May it was Marcelo Bielsa's team that were the toast of Europe with their attacking, easy-on-the-eye style that saw them storm past Manchester United and Schalke in their way to the final. Atletico, meanwhile, were an old story, they had been there before – winning the same tournament just two years previously – and although they had been rejuvenated under Diego Simeone their success was based more in function than flair.

Both had got to the final on the back of their number nines. In Bucharest, though, it was Radamel Falcao who fired whilst Fernado Llorente floundered and the tales of both clubs have continued to follow the fortunes of their frontmen.

Falcao has continued to soar, until this weekend keeping pace with Cristiano Ronaldo’s goalscoring record in the League this season and guiding Atleti to a League position barely believable this time last year, between Barcelona and Real Madrid. By retaining the Colombian, when it seemed certain he would leave last summer, Los Colchoneros have also been rewarded with the dual benefits of almost certainly securing the riches of Champions League football next season and ensuring an even greater price for their man when he does eventually move on to new pastures wherever they may be.

Llorente, meanwhile, does eventually know where he is headed. But the disastrous handling of his departure to Juventus has encapsulated Athletic's season. After refusing to sell the Spanish international in the summer when his value was still high, despite the fact he informed the club he wouldn't be singing an extension to his contract, the Basques will now lose one of their most valuable assets for nothing. Moreover, Llorente hasn't even been used very often this season, starting a League game just once when Aritz Aduriz was suspended.

And so the two met once more this weekend with Atleti four points ahead of Real Madrid and Athletic just four off the relegation zone. Injury meant that neither Falcao nor Llorente were present and in their absence there was a familiar score, except this time it was Bielsa's men that emerged 3-0 victors.

The fact they did so by quite such a margin was the surprise. As good as Atleti have been this season they have now won just one of their last 10 away games in all competitions and have been somewhat exposed when without Falcao this season, but this was more about Athletic regaining their 'chispa', their spark.

Their relentless pressing, a trademark of all Bielsa sides, was back. Two of the stars from last season that have failed to hit the same heights this, Oscar de Marcos and Markel Susaeta, scored. Another, Ander Herrera, set up the second goal with a lovely through-ball just like the one he gave to Aduriz to equalise in the 1-1 draw with Betis on Monday, whilst Aduriz himself showed he's more than just a goalscorer with a fine cross for De Marcos power home the third.

Overall it was a fine team performance full of the coordinated aggression and fluency that has so scarcely been in evidence at San Mames in its final year.

“It was a very complete game and probably our best of the season,” admitted De Marcos. “This victory against an opponent like Atleti gives us a lot of confidence,” added Susaeta, but Bielsa as ever wasn’t dishing out compliments just yet. “You evaluate the improvements once they have a degree of consistency,” he said. Should Athletic achieve that consistency the ghosts of Bucharest may finally be laid to rest.

Elsewhere, Lionel Messi was full of his usual platitudes at the end of Barca's 5-1 win over Osasuna when he would have been far better bursting into a tune of ‘anything you can do I can do better’. The Argentine scored four times to take his season tally already to a ridiculous 44 and even outscore Cristiano Ronaldo on the day after the Portuguese had notched a 10-minute hat-trick against Getafe in a 4-0 win for Los Blancos.

However, it wasn't such a happy weekend for Joaquin Caparros as he now seems set for the sack after a 3-2 defeat by Malaga, the Islanders' 12th in 16 League games left them second from bottom. That win for Malaga lifted them back into the top four, though, as at Vallecas Rayo Vallecano were producing some more glorious football to sweep aside Betis 3-0. Paco Jemez’s men are now just a point off the Champions League places themselves, whilst wins for Valencia and Levante mean they too are just a further point off the top four.