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Athletic Bilbao’s golden generation stands at the crossroads

The Basque football club, which holds a presidential election this week, is limited by its locals-only selection policy. But with a wealth of talent coming through the ranks, the future looks particularly bright right now.


Reasons to be cheerful: Athletic Bilbao currently look like the real deal.

It’s a pivotal week for the future of Athletic Bilbao. On Thursday, July 7th, the club holds its presidential elections, with former Athletic midfielder Josu Urrutia challenging current president Fernando García Macua for control of the Basque club.

Urrutia’s candidacy started with a bang when he announced that former Argentina and Chile boss Marcelo Bielsa would be manager should he win. Bielsa, who recently rejected the chance to take over at Inter Milan, is a managerial heavyweight. A deep football thinker, he is known for sending out tactically astute, but sometimes mentally brittle, teams. While his unbalanced Argentina flopped at the 2006 World Cup, Chile were one of the stand-outs of last year’s competition with their attack-minded, Duracell-bunny approach. It’s difficult to predict how or if El Loco would adapt his trademark 3-4-3 style to meet the requirements of a long La Liga campaign, but it might be exciting to find out.

A less dramatic but perhaps more reasonable choice by Bilbao’s socios would be to stick with incumbent president García Macua and current coach Joaquín Caparrós. This partnership has been generally good for Athletic, with the last four years seeing slow but sure progress on the field, where Caparrós’s well-drilled side has been physically strong, full of hard running and difficult to beat. A steadily impressive sixth place last season was enough to clinch a Europa League spot for 2011/12. At a press conference last week, García Macua hinted that a vote for Urrutia would jeopardise all this by using words like “continuity” and “coherence”.

Athletic in Champions League?

The target next season for whoever ends up in charge will be to grab one of the two remaining Champions League places (let’s assume, for argument’s sake, Barcelona and Real Madrid take the others). With both Valencia and Villarreal selling their best players, Sevilla rebuilding (again), Atlético in crisis (again) and Málaga’s many new arrivals likely needing time to settle in, there’s a real chance for Athletic to nip in.

The timing is good for another reason too. Athletic’s Basque-only player recruitment policy limits its available talent pool, so fans at the San Mamés often just have to wait for successful generations to arrive. Fortunately, one appears to be coming together right about now.

The current squad is the most promising for decades, as evidenced by the three Bilbao players who played a major role in last month’s European U-21 Championships in Denmark. Eighteen-year-old Iker Muniain, a tricky, nippy and deceptively strong winger, is the youngest player and scorer in Athletic’s history, and already a first-team regular under Caparrós. Midfielder Ander Herrera also impressed with his nimble feet and brain, and by scoring twice, including the opener in the 2-0 victory over Switzerland in the final.

The star of the show though was holding midfielder Javi Martínez, who stood head and shoulders above all others at the tournament – including Barcelona’s more heralded Thiago Alcântara. It seemed strange that Martínez, who made his debut for Athletic in 2005 and was a full member of Spain’s World Cup winning senior squad, was still young enough to be playing at U-21 level, but he was. Dominant in the tackle and calm on the ball, he looked every inch the future superstar.

Llorente’s time has come

Muniain, Ander and Martínez now return to fit in behind Athletic’s world-class striker Fernando Llorente. Dominant in the air, clinical off either foot and not averse to unselfishly teeing up teammates, Llorente, now 26, is the real deal. In recent months he has overtaken Fernando Torres as Spain’s senior number nine, helped by three important goals in two games against Scotland in Euro 2012 qualifiers. Last season’s club form was more than decent too – with 17 goals in 35 games, and many more assists.

Next season should see further progress from Bilbao’s other youngsters defenders Mikel San José, Borja Ekiza and midfielder Markel Susaeta, while more experienced defenders Andoni Iraola and Fernando Amorebieta are reaching their peak. The new or continuing president will also presumably be hoping to add the squad. A signing like Everton’s Mikel Arteta or Valencia’s Aritz Aduriz would show the new regime really means business. All this means 2011-12 could be Athletic’s best season since the mid-1980s.

That could all depend, however, on the results of Thursday’s election. Recent polls in the local press put the challenger just ahead and it looks set to go to the wire. You could argue that Bielsa’s unorthodox but often inspired coaching is just what this talented bunch of youngsters needs to attain real Champions League quality. Or, that it would be crazy to abandon the steady progressive approach made by García Macua and Caparrós in guiding the group this far. It’s a big week in Bilbao.

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Published: Jul 4 2011
Category: Sports, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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