Notes on the Season: Athletic Bilbao
The whistle goes and...Real Sociedad
are the team cheering and celebrating. Wrong script. It's the final Basque Derby at The Cathedral and the wrong team has won. That was in late February.
At the moment, Real Sociedad are in the Champions League places with 51 points in 4th place. Athletic Bilbao will need a miracle to get into Europe next year at all - even in the Europa league. They are in 13th place.
A few months before the all-important derby, a recording surfaced of Marcelo Bielsa addressing his boys in the dressing room. It's not particularly scandalous. He doesn't even say anything interesting. That's not the point though. Who leaked it? And why? What's the angle? Who needs that sort of drama?
To say Bielsa's players are unhappy would be an understatement, it would seem. His quirky and obsessive coaching style
was fine when things were going well in the league and in Europe. Now he seems simply to be irritating his players. A transfer drama early in the season and the team's uninspiring form are playing their part too.
And it's quite a change from last year, when Athletic were the team all the footballing hipsters were in love with - the team that went to Old Trafford and won convincingly before making the final of two cup competitions (via Raúl's Schalke 04) - the Europa League and then the Copa del Rey. They were well beaten in both, but the youngsters had made their point - which is the downside to any successful season from a club's point of view.
Bayern fished out the record Bundesliga transfer fee for what was, essentially, a utility player in Javi Martínez - and in hindsight an attempt by Ulli Hoeness to attract Pep Guardiola by signing his type of player - the very good holding midfielder, who can be an average centreback in an emergency. Or maybe a fullback. Bayern were never clear on the need to spend that amount of money for a player probably worth, in pure footballing terms, about half as much. The bookies wondering where Guardiola was going should have been paying greater attention.
40 million is never enough though, where Athletic are concerned. Athletic are the anti-Madrid where internationalism and the transfer market is concerned. They have an unofficial (because it would, obviously, be illegal if it was official) Basque-only policy. So losses like one-time Florentino Perez transfer-target Fernando Llorente (expected to be leaving at the end of the season) or Javi Martínez are fatal to the club because these players cannot be replaced except with players who have a similar pedigree or background in the region. Hence Athletic's unusually high buy-out clauses. Replacement players have to be Basque and/or they have to be from the area - money is nearly useless in a situation like that.
Hence the unseemly wrangling over Fernando Llorente's
transfer to Juventus. He is said to be on the outs with his coach. More likely: his coach can't build a team around him anymore with the club digging its heels in over his likely transfer to Juventus with a childish stubbornness after losing Javi Martínez. It's pointless. They will lose him. Bayern had 40 million lying around for Martínez's absurd release clause, Juve are being far more prudent and patient and know they will get their man soon enough.
But as a result the coach (dealing with an unhappy squad), club (trying to hang on to its players), and the players (many no-doubt wishing they could leave, cursing their release clauses and wire-tapping the dressing room for revenge), all seem unhappy this year.
January and February's flirtation with the relegation places in the league can hardly have helped the mood around the place. Athletic have been losing games all year that they should be winning.
For all that, you can expect Llorente to start tomorrow. Markel Susaeta has served his ban and can be expected to play too. Andoni Iraola is injured. The list of suspended is long however: Carlos Gurpegui, Aymeric Laporte, Oscar de Marcos and Aritz Aduriz.
THE REAL MADRID SQUAD:
Goalkeepers: Diego López, Casillas and Adán.
Defenders: Varane, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrão, Carvalho, Marcelo, Albiol and Nacho.
Midfielders: Khedira, Xabi Alonso, Modric, Callejón and Di María.
Kaká and Gonzalo Higuain are still believed to be carrying knocks. But Gonzalo Higuaín has travelled and perhaps there's hope he'll pass a late fitness test.
The most notable absences are Mesut Özil who was badly injured (according to Aitor Karanka today)
against Galatasaray in the Champions League, and Michael Essien
whose hamstring continues to cause trouble. Meanwhile, Álvaro Arbeloa's back is giving him trouble
and he will miss the match.
Cristiano Ronaldo is already expected to either be used as a substitute or be substituted out earlier than usual. Unusually, Jose Mourinho has had him training in the gym this week. And indeed, a number of our players are likely to be rested over the next two weeks, or sent out for shorter-than-usual spins on the pitch.
A final note - it will indeed be Madrid's final game at San Mamés - The Cathedral - the oldest and most beautiful stadium in Spain and the place where Madrid became the first team to win the Spanish league on the ground on their way to getting their record 100 points last year. Madrid are also the team to have recorded the most away wins in that stadium.