Last season was an unmitigated disaster for Athletic Club Bilbao. A club who have become accustomed to competing in European football, and one of only three to never have been relegated from La Liga since its inception – along with Real Madrid and Barcelona – saw them finish 16th, and with no more points than any other side who beat the drop.
Such underperformance was pinned on boss José Ángel Ziganda – a loyal club servant as a player and coach but inexperienced at the top level in the dugout. This was a team too good to be struggling so badly. With players like Inaki Williams, Inigo Martinez and Iker Munain – they should have been challenging for a top six spot.
The summer was long-awaited and provided the necessary regeneration to revive the club’s fortunes. Or so it was thought. Ziganda was replaced by Eduardo Berizzo – greatly respected in the Spanish top-flight – while, unusually for a club whose Basque-only policy restricts them from significant squad changes, also saw several fresh faces arrive. Midfield duo Ander Capa and Dani Garcia joined from Eibar, Cristian Ganea arrived from Viitorul Constanța and most significantly of all, Yuri Berchiche joined from Paris Saint-Germain in a €20m deal.
Everybody thought last season was the nadir; a write-off that would be quickly forgotten and swiftly moved on from. As ever, football has shown its capacity to surprise and after the first four months of Berizzo’s rein, the situation at the San Mames is actually worse. They lie in the relegation zone and with 14 games played they have just 11 points. That is three fewer than Athletic at the same point last season, and, most worryingly of all, Ziganda’s side then won 10 points from the next four games.
There is little sign of such a run of results this time around and the Argentine must surely be on the precipice of losing his job. Athletic tend to have patience but allowing Ziganda to remain until the end of the campaign last time out was primarily due to relegation not being a genuine concern. Now, it most certainly is.
Aside from bottom-of-the-table Huesca and Rayo Vallecano, now just one point from Athletic, there are no sides who look like potential relegation fodder. Villarreal, somewhat incredibly, are the team closest to the Basque giants but hold a three-point cushion to the drop zone. Real Betis, Celta Vigo and Valencia are other sides in the bottom half.
This is the 88th consecutive year that Athletic have been in the top flight. It is a proud tradition and they are one of only four clubs to never have been relegated from the top tier of one of Europe’s top five leagues since its inception. Internazionale of Italy are the only side outside of Spain to hold the honour following HSV’s relegation in Germany last year. Last year was Athletic’s nightmare but this year might prove to be the genuine terror.
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