Ben Jarman is a freelance football writer with a soft spot for Spanish football, and a an understandable interest in one of Europe’s most interesting clubs, Athletic Bilbao. In this piece, he tells us about the Basque side’s magnificent season. Follow Ben on Twitter
Athletic Club finished in a highly respectable 5th place this season, securing European football for the third season in a row. Despite only using players from a population smaller than the size of Wales, Athletic continue to break the boundaries put in front of them. The fans will be happy with the overall outcome of the season as the club stormed to early season success, cemented themselves as one of the top sides in Spain and made huge strides in European competition.
31 years ago Athletic lifted the Supercopa de España by default after a double winning season that is probably best remembered for an almighty brawl sparked by Diego Armando Maradona then of Barcelona in the final of the Copa Del Rey. Over three decades later the opposition was once more FC Barcelona, who have defeated Athletic three times in Supercopa finals. This season the hoodoo was finally broken as a stunning display at the San Mames ensured the Basque side arrived to the Camp Nou with a 4-0 lead. The relationship between both clubs is one of mutual friendship due to both sets of fans’ constant opposition to a centralised government. If anything, that made lifting the Cup in Barcelona’s back yard all the more sweeter.
A whirlwind start to the season so it was, this year can be remembered as one of emergence for a number of players. Mikel San Jose proved his worth as an international class holding midfielder in the absence of Ander Iturraspe. SanJo’s finest moment was undoubtedly his crisp volley from near the halfway line to put Athletic in charge during the aforementioned battle of the autonomies in the Supercopa Final. Meanwhile, Aritz Aduriz continued his fine scoring form at the ripe old age of 34. Since his return to Athletic in 2012 Aduriz has hit the net 98 times in all competitions and this season finally won over Vicente Del Bosque who rewarded him with a first international cap since 2010. Aduriz paid him back with a goal and has since been rewarded with a place in Del Bosque’s preliminary squad for Euro 2016.
In his end of season press conference Club President Josu Urrutia, who spent of all his 457 game career with Athletic, said “Our goal, among others, is to show how strong an academy we have” and two of those academy graduates went some way to proving just that. Iñaki Williams burst on to the scene late last year, but his form this season has been nothing short of exceptional. Born in Bilbao to a Ghanaian father and Liberian mother, Williams has been with Athletic since the age of 9 but emphatically stamped his mark on La Liga with a remarkable goal over Espanyol, drawing comparisons to Thierry Henry.
Speaking of Frenchmen, Aymeric Laporte is one of the most talked-about young players in the world at present and rightly so. Despite snubs by Didier Deschamps, Laporte has firmly established himself as one of the top central defenders not only in Spain but across Europe. Paper talk of him switching to Manchester United, City and FC Barcelona won’t subside, but despite this Urrutia is confident of keeping hold of him: “Laporte is aware of where he is, he knows how lucky he is belonging to this club and he knows we are happy with him”.
Domestically, it is almost accepted that Athletic will almost always be a permanent fixture in the latter rounds of the Copa Del Rey and this season was no different. However, Barcelona avenged their defeat in the season-opening showpiece moving past Athletic in the quarter finals. Winning the Supercopa resulted in Athletic taking their eye off the ball, opening the season with one win in six games.
Local derbies continue to be a problem for Los Leones, failing to beat Sociedad on the road and falling 1-0 on home turf. However, despite their early season troubles Athletic turned the form-book on its head with their late season form, losing just twice between February and the end of the season and streaking up the table into the European places. Athletic have gone further to cement their status at the top of the ‘chasing pack’, following up the previous campaigns 4th place by pipping Celta Vigo to 5th with a final day victory over Sevilla.
It was the Andalusians, however, who ended the dreams of reaching a second Europa League final. Athletic had battled to reverse a 1-2 first leg deficit and force penalties through a late Raul Garcia goal, but an excruciating shootout went in favour of those from the south of Spain. This European campaign showed that Athletic have matured into an outfit who can hold their own against the biggest European forces, sweeping Marseille aside thanks to a breathtaking goal from Aduriz. Most encouragingly was Athletic’s ability to travel to far-flung cities and come away with positive results.
Waving good-bye to the end of this season will have been difficult for everyone involved with Athletic as the club consistently built on the remarkable work undertaken by manager Ernesto Valverde. However, it was even harder to bid farewell to ‘Capi’ Carlos Gurpegui who put an end to a 14 year career following his debut in 2012. Gurpergui has been present through all of Athletic’s modern success, making 399 appearances. If anyone understood and demonstrated the values that Athletic hold it was Gurpegi who led San Mames in one final tear-filled roar of “Athleeeeeeetic!” before drawing the curtain on a wonderful career and a wonderful season for the Basque club.
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