When Ernesto Valverde was appointed Barcelona head coach last summer, there was a sense of inevitability among fans of Athletic Club Bilbao that an era was over. The experienced boss delivered Champions League football to the Basque giants, a Copa del Rey final and the Spanish Supercopa in 2015 – their first major honour in 31 years.
Valverde’s successor, Jose Angel Ziganda – the previous B team boss – has not proved able to fill his shoes. Despite the squad remaining in place and with Aymeric Laporte’s mid-season sale to Manchester City the only major departure, standards have dropped at the San Mames this season.
The reality is the Basque giants – so used to regular European football under their previous management – languish in 14th. They are tied on points with the two teams directly below them in the standings and could feasibly conclude their campaign in 17th – just one place above the drop zone.
The general consensus is that this is a squad with sufficient quality and resources to mount a major challenge for a top seven spot, if not more. Laporte’s departure may have represented a blow but the club acted swiftly to bring in Inigo Martinez from Basque neighbours Real Sociedad. The emergence of Unai Nunez and return of Yeray Alvarez from testicular cancer also ensures the club are well stocked defensively.
Goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga – Spain’s number two, behind David De Gea – rejected the advances of Real Madrid to commit his long-term future to the club. The lively Inaki Williams is one of the brightest, most direct players in La Liga and the return of Iker Munain from a long-term injury also adds invention and quality into the attack.
Long-serving striker Aritz Aduriz still represents a major goal threat, while Raul Garcia, Ander Iturraspe and Markel Susaeta add guile and bite to the midfield. There is widespread talk that the club will attempt to land three English-based players this summer – Newcastle United’s Mikel Merino and two former Athletic players: Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera and Fernando Llorente, the Tottenham striker.
Athletic are a club with a rich history and their fans have become accustomed to their club being one of the strongest in the Spanish top division. They have a committed playing staff and, for the first time in three years, will be replenishing their first-team squad. Their ‘Basque only’ policy still remains but has been relaxed in recent years, with players with family connections or who have been trained in the region now added to those strictly with heritage in the region.
It has been a tough year for Athletic but the future remains bright and should they make the right managerial appointment this summer, they will be major challengers again next season.
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