Athletic set to roll the Europa League dice


The underperformance of Athletic Bilbao has been a major story in La Liga this season, with fans pointing the finger of blame at manager Cuco Ziganda.

Ziganda took over from Ernesto Valverede, who headed for the Camp Nou, making the step up from boss of the club’s reserve side, Bilbao Athletic.

Initially there were doubts over his ability to manage at this level, but he had impressed as coach of the second string, and Valverde gave him a ringing endorsement as his replacement.

Ziganda opted not to dip his toe into the transfer market ahead of the 2017-18 preferring instead to trust the players who had performed consistently well under Valverde.

The season started early, but positively, as Ziganda’s side navigated past Dinamo Bucharest and Panathinikos in the Europa League qualifying stages and started the La Liga season with two wins and two draws.

However, from there on, Athletic have struggled for both consistency and to find a way to harness the ‘us v them’ Basque power that Valverde and his predecessors used so effectively.

Just six wins in 20 games in all competitions from September to Christmas tells its own story of Athletic’s problematic season, as the club broke into the top 10 just once in that period.

Ziganda has been criticised for his perceived negative tactics, as Bilbao have slipped down the table, he has looked for a more defensive strategy to stabilse the side and get points together. This has irritated fans, who are used to more attacking football, and the mentality of ‘to get out of this mess we need to be brave and go and beat sides’, not play safety first.

This identity crisis between manager and fans was made worse by the exit of star player Aymeric Laporte to Manchester City in January, for a fee in excess of €60m.

Ziganda acted quickly and signed Inigo Martinez from bitter rivals Real Sociedad, a move that few saw coming, but highlighted the manager’s determination to back his own judgement.

In truth, results have improved little in 2018, with just two La Liga win since the turn of the year, with Athletic down in 14th place in the table.

The club finds itself facing the prospect of their lowest finish since 2009, when they finished 13th, and for a club associated with European qualification that is an issue.

Athletic have qualified for either Europa League or Champions League football for seven of the last nine seasons, either by league or Copa del Rey success.

Copa success is beyond them, and even a top ten finish looks to be too much for 2017-18.

Ziganda is left with one option to seal European football at San Mames next season, and potentially save his own job.

That is to prioritise the Europa League, to secure a back door into next season’s Champions League, a la Jose Mourinho in 2016-17.

On the whole, Athletic have looked good in Europe this season, finishing second in their group on goal difference – behind Swedish side Ostersunds.

From there they put in their best performance of the season to win 3-0 away at Spartak Moscow, and riding the storm in a 2-1 home defeat in the second leg.

The pressure-free world of the Europa League has seen the best of Athletic in 2017-18, and they could well be a dark horse in the competition.

A quarter final draw against Marseille is kinder than the other options, but tougher tests lie ahead for the Basque side, but they have no choice but to give Europe their all.

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