2016-17 Season Preview: Athletic Bilbao

Coach: Ernesto Valverde

Key signings: N\A

Key sales: Unai Lopez, Ibai Gomez

Last season: 5th

This season (predicted finish): 6th

Athletic Bilbao’s 2015-16 campaign was massively influenced by cup competitions, and their 16-17 looks likely to follow a similar path. The Basque side began last season strongly, convincingly beating Barcelona in the Supercopa and qualifying for the Europa League group stages. They breezed through the latter but were stopped in the quarter-finals by eventual winners Sevilla. Likewise, in the Copa del Rey they were beaten in the last eight by its eventual winners, this time Barcelona. A late rally was then needed for them to rise up the La Liga table and secure a fifth-place finish, thus removing the need for Europa League qualifiers this time around.

Athletic’s aim will again be Europa League qualification via the League this season, and if possible a consistent run in the Copa del Rey, a competition they have been runners-up in twice in the last five seasons. Given the improvement of the teams that are normally around Los Leones in the League table, Valverde will also have ensure that they do not make as poor a start as they did last term, winning just one of their opening six League games. As was also the case in 15-15, there will be a continued reliance on key men such as Aritz Aduriz [pictured, left] and Raul Garcia for goals and to ensure the side don’t slide into mid-table.

Equally vital will be stalwarts Mikel San Jose and Gorka Iraizoz, essential figures in knotting the team so tightly together. As a squad, they possess the experience and high-tempo qualities to trouble most of their domestic rivals, including the elite on their day. The concern, however, are the advancing years of Aduriz and Garcia, and how they can begin to be replaced. Nonetheless, the Basques have been a team of regeneration under Valverde, and Inaki Williams, Aymeric Laporte (who rejected Manchester City and signed a new contract) and Iker Muniain among others have developed sufficiently to make themselves the next, likely set of indispensables.

In terms of transfers, this summer has been particularly quiet, even by Athletic’s standards. There have been no major incomings or outgoings to date, with midfielder Unai Lopez’s loan move to Leganes and injury-prone winger Ibai Gomez’s free transfer to Alaves the only departures of note.

Preseason has been somewhat uninspiring for for Valverde’s side, with draws against Huesca, Bordeaux, Nantes and Sporting Gijon (who they face in their opening League game) along with defeat to Southampton. And while they started their mini-tour of Germany by beating Borussia Dortmund, it was followed by a draw and loss to Hoffenheim and Schalke respectively.