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Tuesday December 3 2013
Victorious Valverde right to dream

Ernesto Valverde's Athletic Bilbao overcome their biggest test yet at home to Barcelona, convincing Joseph Sexton of their European credentials.

The clock ticked down at the new San Mames. Gaizka Toquero tried to run time down in the corner, unsuccessfully. Jose Manuel Pinto was charged down for the umpteenth time, scuffing his clearance. Pedro, Alexis Sanchez, and Neymar gathered at the far end of the field but the long ball was never likely to succeed. The final whistle brought elation, and relief.

Athletic had led since the 71st minute. But this was no scrappy fluke of a victory, for they'd fought like lions and attacked with precision and cunning. Despite enjoying two-thirds of the possession, Barcelona had misfired badly. Just two shots on target and none after half-time as they slumped to a second straight defeat, and for only the second time in over 70 La Liga games they'd been held scoreless.

At the helm of the winners was Ernesto Valverde. The Extremaduran has ties to both sides from his playing days, including six years here in the Basque country. Back when word got out that Pep Guardiola would be leaving his post at the Camp Nou in 2012, his was the name on every journalist's lips outside the ground. But instead the club chose continuity in the form of Tito Vilanova over the then Olympiacos boss.

Since then, Valverde has reshaped the fortunes of two of Spain's grander names. Last year, he inherited a mess at Valencia from Mauricio Pellegrino. They ended the season agonisingly close to making a return to the Champions League.

This term he's taken on an Athletic side battered by the ill-temper surrounding Marcelo Bielsa's second season in Bilbao, and has his mix of talent and triers enjoying their football once again. Unbeaten at home, they now occupy that all-important fourth spot.

Nobody on Sunday evening encapsulated the virtues of his side better than the front pairing of Iker Muniain and Toquero. The latter was only playing because of Aritz Aduriz's suspension, and ran his socks off. Largely a non-goalscoring centre-forward - though he came close with two headers - Toquero was the first line of defence, leading the high press which so unsettled the champions.

Muniain, by contrast offered that extra degree of finesse from his starting position on the right. He frequently got in between Martin Montoya and the centre-backs, making intelligently timed runs and served as a brake on Montoya's attacking instincts with the threat of his pace. He might have opened the scoring in the first half when he couldn't quite dig the ball out from under his feet.

With just under 20 minutes left, however, he would make no mistake. Now the question is whether he and his side can make fourth place their own.

“Being up here is evidence”, Valverde stated. “It shows we're on the right path. But it's early days yet. The win gives us confidence because of the manner in which it was earned, the level of the opponent, and how we were made to fight. Now it's time to seize this opportunity.”

“We played a complete game from the first minute to the last”, noted Muniain. “We did enough to win, and we deserve this success.”

Follow Joseph on Twitter @josephsbcn

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