Athletic Bilbao’s performance in their resounding 3-0 win over Malaga last night was another statement of intent in what has been a fine season to date for the Basque side. From the moment top goal scorer Aritz Aduriz headed Los Leones’ opener on four minutes to referee Jose Gonzalez’s final whistle to mark the end of proceedings, the hosts were utterly dominant as they went about re-establishing their six point cushion over Sevilla in La Liga’s final Champions League place. Two more goals, another from Aduriz and one by the mercurial Ander Herrera, emphasised Athletic’s dominance in a match labelled as ‘key’ by San Mames Coach Ernesto Valverde in his team’s quest to reach Europe’s premier club competition next season
It is all quite a turnaround for one of Spanish football’s grand old clubs, who last season slumped to a highly disappointing 12th placed finish and lost 17 of their 38 League fixtures. In spite of memorable runs to the Europa League and Copa Del Rey finals the previous year, Los Leones’ form was deemed poor enough by club President Josu Urrutia for him to announce he was not offering maverick Coach Marcelo Bielsa a new contract. The Argentine promptly left his post and was replaced by former player Ernesto Valverde, who had also had a previous and relatively successful two-year spell coaching the team between 2003-05.
Few could have imagined the extent of the impact club hero Valverde would make second time around though. With the club having made their intentions for the future clear by moving into their spectacular new San Mames stadium at the start of the season, the Coach has gone about preparing a team fit to play in it. He has breathed new life into the club and banished the painful memories of last year, which included the freezing out of star striker and prodigal son Fernando Llorente over his refusal to sign a new contract as well as a struggle to cope with the loss of star midfielder Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich.
This time around Los Leones began the season by managing to hang on to one of their key assets in Herrera, despite the best efforts of Manchester United. They have not looked back since. The 24-year-old has starred in his role supporting wily veteran Aduriz up front, while able assistance is provided from the flanks by the likes of Markel Susaeta, Iker Muniain and Oscar De Marcoa. Mikel Rico and Ander Iturraspe provide the engine room of Athletic’s high-tempo pressing game, with the emergence of 19-year-old centre-back Aymeric Laporte being one of the shining lights of a defensive effort that has seen them concede fewer goals than 16 of the 19 other teams in the League.
The club’s cantera policy ensures that, as ever, all of this has been done solely with local and home-grown players. Quite a feat, and one that is put into all the more context when considering that with five matches to play, Athletic have already amassed 17 more points than they did in the entirety of last season.
So what next for Los Leones? Following last night’s victory, Valverde’s men now face two more critical encounters if they are to secure their first Champions League qualification in 16 years. This weekend sees a trip to the Camp Nou to take on Tata Martino’s under-pressure Barcelona, while next week’s home tie with fifth-placed Sevilla is a real six-pointer. Should they at least avoid defeat against Unai Emery’s side, the chances are it will be enough to secure what fans will regard as a long overdue season mixing it with Europe’s big boys.