Athletic Bilbao were in convincing form once again last Friday as they booked their place in next season’s Champions League with a professional and efficient 3-0 win at Rayo Vallecano. Coach Ernesto Valverde told his men they needed three more points to secure fourth place after beating Sevilla the previous week and they duly delivered.
Los Leones’ first season at their new Sam Mames home has also been Valverde’s maiden campaign in his second spell in charge. A local hero in his playing days at the club, with 170 appearances and 44 goals for the Basques in the 1990s, the native of Extremadura was seen as a safe pair of hands after the wild excesses of the Marcelo Bielsa era.
Bielsa had taken Athletic to the brink of European success, navigating the road to the Europa League final in 2012 after eliminating Manchester United, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon along the way, only to lose to Atletico Madrid in the showpiece finale in Bucharest.
The following season saw another near miss, this time with Bielsa sailing perilously close to relegation and narrowly avoiding the drop. Acrimony ensued, with striker Fernando Llorente and defender Fernando Amorebieta, frozen out by contractual disputes, departing as Bielsa was shown the door.
The incoming Valverde moved quickly to sign Benat Etxebarria from Real Betis to reinforce the midfield, while also picking up defender Mikel Balenziaga from Valladolid. The new Coach signed striker Kike Sola from Osasuna to pair up with Aritz Aduriz and brought defender Aymeric Laporte through from the club’s youth set-up, shaping a side with the ability to bounce back.
Athletic began the season in positive form, particularly at their new home, where they remained unbeaten until Espanyol lowered their colours in February. In December, Iker Muniain’s 70th-minute strike against Barcelona inflicted the Catalans’ first Primera defeat of the season.
Valverde’s men also held Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw in February, the culmination of a purple patch that delivered 15 goals in three games as the Basques won 6-1 against Almeria, 4-2 over Valladolid and 5-1 away at Osasuna.
Since then, Athletic have had their sights fixed on the fourth-place finish that would yield the Champions League qualification berth that neighbours Real Sociedad failed to make the most of in the current campaign.
La Real, Sevilla and a fading Villarreal have been Athletic’s challengers for that spot, but Valverde’s men have been the most consistent of the quartet as the Coach has sought to build the perfect platform from which to launch a Champions League assault.
Valverde has been smart enough to build on the legacy left by Bielsa, rather than abandoning it. The Argentine’s high-tempo, pressing game tended to offer attack at the expense of defence, with the risk of conceding goals always present.
Valverde has not sacrificed flair, but has reinforced his defence, with the 20-year-old Laporte – linked with a move to Barcelona – one of the stars of the season in a backline that has shipped just 37 goals. Only the top three have conceded fewer.
With the signing of Sola backfiring – just one goal in five appearances – Aduriz has led the attack, netting 16 times in La Liga. Support has come from all over the pitch, however, with Ibai Gomez on target eight times, Muniain and Mikel Susaeta hitting six apiece and Mikel San Jose, Mikel Rico, Oscar De Marcos and Ander Herrera each weighing in with five.
The even distribution of goals reflects the team ethic Valverde has embedded and was reflected in the crucial win against Sevilla, when San Jose, De Marcos and Herrera were on target as Athletic achieved their goal.