Friday February 8 2019
Athletic Bilbao can continue recovery against Barcelona

Athletic Club Bilbao are a club transformed under new Coach Gaizka Garitano and can shock champions Barcelona this weekend, writes Rob Hemingway.

The new manager bounce has been well and truly felt at Athletic Club Bilbao since Gaizka Garitano took over from the sacked Eduardo Berizzo in December. With just one league win all season before his promotion from the club’s B team, Garitano has overseen four victories in two months as part of an unbeaten run that only ended with last week’s derby reverse against Real Sociedad.

As seen with Santiago Solari at Real Madrid and Imanol Alguacil down the road at Anoeta, the trend of assistants stepping in to rescue their club – and having success – is becoming increasingly prevalent. It seems likely that Aitor Elizegi, Athletic’s new President, will keep Garitano on until the end of the season, particularly given the club’s form and previous managerial upheaval. However, he has already acted on one of his election promises by removing long-serving sporting director Jose Maria Amorrortu, replacing him with former players Rafael Alkorta and Andoni Ayarza.

Their impact will likely be felt from the summer – they have already gone on record listing their transfer targets – with, ideally, a strong league finish to build upon. Given the congested midriff of the Spanish top flight, Los Leones find themselves six points off fifth, but also only three from the relegation zone. Their upcoming fixtures in February will go some way to defining their final league position.

First up this Sunday is the arrival of Barcelona at San Mames. If ever there was an opportune moment to play the champions, this is probably it. The Blaugrana are in the middle of their toughest run of fixtures so far this season. In the next month they will play Real Madrid (twice), Sevilla and Lyon – all away from the Camp Nou. There is also the matter of Leo Messi’s thigh, which is recovering from an injury suffered against Valencia. includes full odds of this game and all the rest across La Liga.

Given he appeared in the second half of Wednesday’s Copa del Rey draw with Madrid, it’s likely he’ll start. If he is not risked, it surely confirms that the Champions League is the club’s number one priority this season – perhaps unsurprising given their four-year drought and that Messi sees it as the key to winning back the Ballon D’Or.

In his first week in the job, Garitano said “winning starts with the defence,” and his side haven’t strayed far from this mantra since, conceding just five goals in the league since his appointment. It’s likely they will once again keep a balanced defensive unit on Sunday whilst looking for some spark at the other end to give energy to the home fans. If they get any form of positive result, the ensuing confidence boost will be invaluable.

Los Leones travel to bottom side Huesca the week after, but it is perhaps the following Saturday which is the most intriguing fixture, as they welcome fellow Basques Eibar, the club Garitano famously took to their first La Liga promotion in 2014.

He has talked about how his new charges must “play football without stress, without making each game a drama.” This will be easier said than done in a match sure to be emotive not only for him, but also given the Basque pride at stake.

Perhaps mindful of his new President’s past as an award-winning chef, Garitano recently said: “There are no miracles or magic recipes, we have to have faith, energy and desire to work. We have to believe that we are playing for a beautiful thing”.

If he and Elizegi can cook up something to take their club away from danger, their fans will be forever grateful.

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