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The Lions bite back – Athletic Club look to finish the season on a high
- Updated: 23 April, 2012
Nuno A Jorge
It’s probably fair to say that Athletic Club did not enjoy a fantastic start to the 2011/12 La Liga season. Following the strike-induced postponement of the first round of matches, Athletic began their league campaign in late August with a mediocre 1-1 draw against newly-promoted Rayo Vallecano.
A month later, los Leones entered the month of October in wretched form: two draws and three losses in five games. New manager Marcelo Bielsa was heavily criticised for his high-pressure system, with many questioning why the Argentine had returned to club football after a dozen years managing Argentina and Chile’s national teams. Fortunately, the first match of the tenth month brought three points to Athletic at the expense of rivals Real Sociedad.
Very few could have pictured at that early point of the season that Athletic would be worthy of grabbing a cup double while catching the eye of football media around the world. Bielsa’s coaching style, coupled with the plethora of young talent plying their trade at Bilbao, have made the Basque club a hot topic in European football conversations.
The high intensity that Los Leones have become known for has catapulted them through their season, demoralizing their Copa del Rey competition and making a tremendous impression on bigger clubs, noticeably Schalke 04 and Manchester United, both of whom suffered home defeats at the hands of Athletic. Manchester United especially have been very admiring of the club; the English giants have been linked with transfer reports regarding Javi Martinez, Markel Susaeta, and Oscar de Marcos in the last few months.
Since the beginning of the calendar year, Athletic has absolutely solidified the fact that the 2011-12 season will be the most memorable in decades. Bielsa’s side have battled through La Liga with topsy-turvy form, with each and every domestic match more important than the next. Despite having won consecutive league matches only once all through the campaign, Athletic technically sits in seventh place, having the best goal difference among the whopping five teams who have the same amount of points as the boys from Bilbao (45). They are six points behind Malaga, who inhabit the fourth-place spot, where Champions League football looms.
The Copa Del Rey campaign for Athletic was considerably easier than a certain Catalan opponent they will play in the final. After defeating Real Oviedo, Albacete, Mallorca, and Mirandes (three clubs from Segunda Division B!) on an aggregate 17-3 score, the Basques have waltzed into the final that will be played on the 25 May against Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon in Madrid.
After the epic 2-2 draw that the two clubs played in the rain at San Mames, Barcelona defeated Athletic handily 2-0 in the reverse fixture. The final will surely be a cracker, considering it is at a neutral site and the club’s players will be rested enough to give the final game of the 2011-12 campaign their all.
And of course, the European gauntlet is officially tougher than ever. With a 1-2 defeat to Sporting Lisbon at the Estadio Alvalade on Thursday, Athletic will need to perform brilliantly at home against the Verde-e-Brancos. The last 20 minutes of the first leg were a train wreck for Athletic, as defenders looked exhausted and cohesion in midfield was simply non-existent.
Superstitious supporters will point out that in the round of 32, Athletic lost 1-2 away at Lokomotiv Moscow before winning 1-0 at San Mames in the second leg. Los Leones will miss their footballing Swiss army knife in de Marcos due to bookings but will make next Thursday’s game one to remember.
For Athletic fans, whether casual supporters or diehard Basque patriots, this has been an unforgettable season: the appointment of mastermind Bielsa, two wins against hated Sociedad, the magical cup runs, and most importantly, when Athletic returned to the radar of world football. Los Leones have unfinished business in these cups, and if they are able to advance to the Europa League final, a date with a league rival is in store (Atletico Madrid or Valencia).
The real challenge right no, however, is if the club can reach the top four of La Liga and earn the vaunted Champions League appearance. Athletic will be hoping their remaining fixtures in La Liga this season are the polar opposite of their first ones.Follow @icentrocampista