El Centrocampista

Captain Fantastic – Andoni Iraola sets his sights on European Glory

And so, Athletic Club de Bilbao are finally rewarded for their trailblazing run across the continent this season. There are surely few out there who could deny Marcelo Bielsa’s side do not thoroughly deserve their trip to Bucharest’s Stadionul National on 9 May to face Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Europa League final – not least Sir Alex Ferguson.

Athletic followed up their highly acomplished victory over Ferguson’s Manchester United side in the quarter-finals by overturning a first-leg deficit against Sporting Club de Portugal at San Mames last night – booking a date with Atletico Madrid on 9 May. It was Fernando Llorente who took the headlines after his late strike secured a dramatic, and much deserved, victory for los Leones, however there was one player who could feel even more pride than the man they call el Rey Leon.

Andoni Iraola has been bombing up and down Athletic’s right flank for the last eight seasons but, on the 23 October 2011, Iraola received another responsibility. That day, club captain Carlos Gurpegui went down with an ACL injury during a 1-1 draw against Valencia. After further examination, it was revealed that the ligament was torn; meaning Gurpegui would miss several months, if not the entire season. The Basque club was left without a leader, without an on-field general.

Born in Usurbil, a town of the province of Gipuzkoa, Iraola made his debut for Athletic in the beginning of the 2003-04 campaign. Since then, he has played in at least 30 games in every season, demonstrating his durability and longevity. The 29-year old has been the quintessential Athletic man, making the transition from the Lezama youth academy to the first team almost seamlessly.

Iraola has established himself as one of the best right backs not just in his league, but among his countrymen. In the 2010-11 season, he was second among all defenders in La Liga with 7 assists. (Dani Alves led the league, but is really a defender at this point?) After Gurpegui’s injury last fall, new manager Marcelo Bielsa named Iraola the captain of Los Leones. Between Iraola’s pedigree, club tenure, and on-field ability, it was a relatively easy choice to make for the Argentine manager. Iraola has proved he is a worthy captain with his performance in the 2011-12 campaign.

This season, he has supplied 3 assists in La Liga and additionally tallied another 3 assists in Athletic’s Copa del Rey campaign (eight games so far). Perhaps his greatest highlight this season was something that didn’t make the statistic sheet but rather Youtube; against Manchester United in the first leg of the clubs’ Europa League clash, Iraola made a stunning series of dribbles after receiving the ball from Iker Muniain, slipping past three defenders before skimming the ball just wide of the post with his left foot. If the ball had gone it, it would have concluded one of the best individual goals you will see all year.

Iraola has seven caps for the Spanish national team. After receiving his first appearance for La Furia Roja in August of 2008, he appeared in a few friendlies and one World Cup qualification match. After a lengthy period with no caps, he received another call-up from Vicente del Bosque when he played a Euro 2012 qualifier against Lithuania on March 29, 2011. Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid has played dozens of games at right back for Spain has already transitioned to centreback for Madrid. After making the switch at club level, a similar move may be seen at the international level in order to replace the aging Carles Puyol. If this move is made before EURO 2012, Iraola may see himself at the forefront of Spain’s pecking order at right back.

At 29 years old, Andoni Iraola is in the prime of his career and has reached his physical peak. To be named to Spain’s roster for the EUROs this summer would be a rewarding achievement for him and is looking more realistic with every game he plays in. He is the prototype of a current full-back; an eclectic mix of sturdy defensive skills and an eye for advancing up the pitch and putting crosses into the penalty area, most notably for Athletic’s mammoth striker Fernando Llorente. The red card he received against Valencia on March 18th was actually the first ever in his La Liga career, with over 300 games played. With a discipline record like that, wouldn’t you want him to replace the red-card prone Ramos at right back for Spain?

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