Saturday, 17 March 2012

On and off the pitch - Athletic ruled....

Athletic Club de Bilbao are well and truly en vogue at the moment - or should that be a la moda? (or, of course, the basque equivalent, which I am unfortunately not equipped to translate!)

van-Basten like...
The team, currently standing in 7th position in La Liga, well and truly outplayed and outclassed the English champions in both legs of their recent Europa League clashes - both on and off the pitch, causing a stir around Europe and drawing much praise for their high-tempo, direct - but skilfull - take on Barcelona's pressing game, and the boisterousness of their fans.
As is befitting a club with so many connections to the English game, England - it's press and it's people, was particularly enamoured by Athletic's performance - and not just the "anyone but United" brigade.

Athletic are a club with a red-and-white striped kit, taken home by a basque traveller from a trip to Southampton; they proudly bear the anglicised moniker "Athletic Club"; their most successful manager was an Englishman, one Fred Pentland; Howard Kendall is a fondly-remembered ex-manager; their ground, San Mames, is often referred to as "English" in style, being very close to the pitch  - and the team are known, certainly in Spain, to play in a more English style, with a direct approach, built around a tall centre-forward. The connections are numerous.

With all this in mind, the two games against United were the biggest to come around for some time. The champions of England coming to town - a time to test themselves against a different style of opposition to the usual Spanish teams and to show their calibre to the watching football world, in an entirely different spotlight to that in which they struggle to be seen because of the traditional big two El Classico teams.

Judging by the response of the players after the games, Fernando Llorente for one calling the feat "increible", this clearly meant a great deal to all concerned.
Athletic Club de Bilbao were brilliant over both games. It was a breath of fresh air to see a team attack Manchester United so vibrantly and freely at Old Trafford - many others withdraw in to their shells and look to limit the damage they expect to be caused. Not Athletic. Back home, whilst not quite reaching the same heights they had in Manchester, they still proved formidable opposition - and could quite easily have score three more goals than they had. Even though a United fan, with the game seemingly out of our grasp, when Andoni Iraola found himself tap-dancing around the penalty area and clipping his shot wide - I was actually willing him to, if not score, at least bring a save out of David De Gea.

The Basques attacked from the off, pressing with a very high line when not in possession. United looked suprised by how relentless the pressure was. No reckless challenges were made, just constant harrying until the opposition hurried a pass and gave the ball away. Whilst in possession, their passing was crisp, they always had space and a couple of options to pass to, and they invariably found their man. Take the pass for Fernando Llorente's opener at San Mames - Fernando Amorebieta played a searching diagonal pass from well inside his own half, floated towards the corner of the United penalty area, which Llorente just had to jog a few yards backwards (unnoticed!) - the easy part - and then execute a van Basten-like volley past De Gea - who surely was not expecting a first-time hit from the frontman.
The stadium exploded with joy. The already raucous fans dared to believe once more that they could make some headlines of their own and could defeat the mighty Manchester United. They needn't have worried at all - the heart that los Leones displayed throughout the 180 minutes, matched with their tenacity and not to mention their technical ability was a sum total that would have steered them past anyone in this mood.
Shambles Square, Manchester
And boy did those supporters deserve the performance they got. 8000 made the trip to Manchester last week - they swamped the city, taking in the sights of the Town Hall and having pictures taken next to traditional black cab taxis, also turning the shambles square area of Manchester into a veritable bay of biscay of red-and-white. And they sang and roared and sang again - even seranading Old Trafford to the sound of "You'll Never Walk Alone" to wind up the home fans.
Back home, they made more noise in their more familiar "Catedral" as opposed to the "Theatre" in Manchester. They even found time to give an ovation to Ryan Giggs (who was quite anonymous in the game, really) and to Wayne Rooney's fine goal. Easy to do when you are coasting, true, but a fine sight nevertheless.

The Basques are a proud people - and this was the perfect opportunity for them and the team that probably represents them the most (Real Sociedad fans will beg to differ, naturally!) to showcase what they are made of around the world - they did this with relish and aplomb.
Whether this form can be transferred back to La Liga for the rest of the season remains to be seen - I can't quite see how such energy could be expelled every game - but following these performances, quite a few more eyes will be watching Athletic and their Leones than even were before.

Keeping hold of their coach, Marcelo Bielsa, and the myriad talents that make up their squad will now, unfortunately, be a very difficult task.

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