Athletic Bilbao ready for Champions League return

Ernesto Valerde will lead Atheltic into their Champions League play-off. Photo: PA

After fifteen years away from competing with Europe’s footballing elite, Athletic Bilbao could bring something of the old school to the most lucrative competition around.

Since the 1998/99 season the Basque club haven’t been in the Champions League, suffering some calamitous campaigns where they almost lost their record of having never been relegated from the Spanish top-flight, thanks to some mediocre squads.

In which time the club have, unsurprisingly, failed to win a single trophy, losing two Copa del Rey and one Europa League finals in that the intervening period.

But now they are back thanks to manaher Ernesto Valverde and a new golden generation of locals at his disposal.

Rafa Benitez
Rafa Benitez will be looking to see off Athletic. Credit: PA

We will face a great team and the second leg will be in an incredible (San Mames) stadium. The (San Mames) crowd is like their 12th man.

Athletic's strongest weapon is the group, with players who have been together for many years and have the support of a city that never loses its passion. > >

– Napoli boss Rafael Benitez

The former Athletic player mixed the exciting, pressing football of previous coach Marcelo Bielsa with a more rigid, organised style of play. The 4-3-3 formation took them to fourth place in La Liga, seeing Athletic qualify for the Champions League play-offs.

It was a communal effort from a side devoid of stars, with the exception of new Manchester United man Ander Herrera, with all of the team proving their worth over the space of the season.

Getting the group stages won’t be a simple task, as the draw has placed Italian giants Napoli in their way. Manager Rafa Benitez knows his Basque opposition well, recently speaking of his respect for the club.

In recent years this great Basque generation has been weakened at the San Mames, witnessing the departures of Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Herrera in just three summers of transfer business, but they have come back stronger each season.

Iker Muniain
Iker Muniain is a match-winner. Credit: PA

Due to the Basque only signing policy, Athletic are unable to replace players of such quality and instead rely on their cantera to provide a youngster who can plug the gap, learning their professional trade as they go.

Despite the losses of this quality Athletic’s strength lies in the camaraderie within a tightly-knit group of footballers, pulling in the same direction for a club with one of the strongest identities in world football.

Whereas the likes of Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain lose much of their links to the local area, as they aim to brand their emblem across the world, Athletic very much remain in the heart of the Basque Country, as their transfer policy still shows – many fans would prefer seeing them relegated with a team of players born within the region, than win trophies with a team of ‘foreigners’.

The team that will face Napoli in Italy on Tuesday night will be formed of a majority who came up through the ranks at the club’s Lezama training ground and a few picked up from local rivals.

Ander Herrera
Ander Herrera has departed, like many stars. Credit: PA

Playing at San Mames is one of the best things a football player can dream of. It's not just me saying it, all my professional colleagues say it as well. It wouldn't be like this were it not for a unique group of supporters who understand football like few others and whose love for their team is limitless

– Ander Herrera upon leaving Athletic

A more defensively-minded team will be sent out at Naples, in the knowledge that if Athletic are still in the game after the first 90 minutes of the tie, they will have a great chance of going through at the San Mames. Benitez referred to the home fans as a 12th man in Bilbao, something he has come up against in the past.

Athletic’s star turn is Iker Muniain, who operates from the left-wing, using his pace and skill to torment full backs, with the ability to cut in onto his stronger right boot. The diminutive forward has over 150 appearances for his club and a Spain cap to his name despite only being 21 years old. Benitez will ensure he is a marked man when they take the field on Tuesday night.

Fellow youngster Aymeric Laporte, who has already been linked with Barcelona, is a rarity in the Athletic ranks, being only the second player in the club's history to come from the French Basque country, after Bixente Lizarazu. Athletic hope the likes of him and Muniain will become the spine of the team for years to come.

The more youthful players can gain their inspiration from the likes of club captain Carlos Gurpegi and Markel Susaeta, who have both staying loyal, spending their entire careers with Athletic.

Athletic Bilbao
Athletic Bilbao have some of the most passionate supporters around. Credit: PA

The lack of upheaval at the San Mames will hold Athletic in good stead, especially as this will be both sides’ first competitive game of the season. Only striker Borja Viguera has joined during the summer, leaving the rest of the squad, apart from Herrera, intact.

Athletic may not be glamorous in this Champions League era of big spending Arabs and official washing up liquid partners, but if they do manage to progress to the group stages, their aura of tradition will be a breath of fresh air in an increasingly money-orientated sport.

Even the Basque club’s two main sponsors oil company Petronor and bank BBK are both based in the region, showing their attempts to keep the entire business local, too.

A new San Mames stadium adjacent to their old, dilapidated ground near the banks of the River Nervion in Bilbao, keeping them as a focal point in the city, rather than moving to the cheaper suburbs.

Whether or not Athletic get beyond Napoli, the people of the Basque Country will be proud of the team representing their region.