Big Summer For: Athletic Bilbao

by Ben McAleer

Today we continue the Big Summer For series with a look at Athletic Bilbao, who may struggle to hold onto their big stars this summer.

The second half of the season has seen one team in particular rise to real prominence; Athletic Bilbao. Every Spanish expert around the world knew all about the Basque outfit and the quality they possessed. But, there run to the final of the Europa League caught the attention of more than those in the shores of Spain.

There brand of free-flowing football, stemmed from Argentinean manager Marcelo ‘Loco’ Bielsa, has captured the hearts of many across Europe. From the moment they knocked Manchester United out of the Europa League, footballs fans sat up and took notice of the La Liga side that had just overcome the Premier League champions over two legs.

Suddenly, with the style of play led by Fernando Llorente and Football Manager favourite Iker Muniain, Bilbao had become everyone’s second team. It was these two, amongst a host of others including Oscar de Marcos, Ander Herrera and Javi Martinez, that fired Los Leones to the final of the Europa League and Copa Del Rey.

The close affiliation with fans and the Basque roots of the club saw them labelled the ‘people’s club’ by many and despite their loss to Atletico Madrid in the final of the Europa League, and despite the love and affection shown towards Barcelona, a number of football fans are hoping Bilbao come out triumphant over the Catalan giants and pick up their first piece of silverware since the La Liga and Copa Del Rey double they achieved back in 1984.

The Lion King

The spearhead of the ruthless Bilbao attack, Llorente has received his fair share of plaudits for another successful season with the La Liga giants. Appropriately nicknamed The Lion King due to his physical stature and blonde mane, the Spanish international has enjoyed his most prolific season to date, netting 29 times in 51 games in all competitions.

His success on the domestic stage has seen the 27-year-old feature heavily with the national side in recent and following the news that David Villa is to miss the upcoming European Championships as he still recovers from a broken leg, Llorente is expected to get the nod ahead of Roberto Soldado and Fernando Torres and lead the Spain attack in Ukraine and Poland next month.

However, it is these performances for club and country that is sure to attract the interest of a number of Europe’s heavyweights. A superb showing against United at the last 16 stage of the Europa League this season saw the Red Devils heavily linked with a move for Llorente, while Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have been mooted as possible suitors in the past.

The fact of the matter is, Llorente has become hot property in recent years across the continent and this summer will see his name strongly linked with a move away from Bilbao. It is absolutely pivotal for the future of the club that Athletic that they hold on to their talisman in order to build on the success they have attained this year alone.

His close ties with the club, having been born a little over 120km from Bilbao, could well see him stay with the club despite speculation suggesting otherwise. As witnessed during the club’s Europa League semi-final win over Sporting, where Llorente was crying in the corner of the pitch following the 3-1 win at San Mamés in the second leg over the Portuguese side, the powerful striker is evidently in love with the club, having claimed reaching the final of the competition to be a bigger honour than winning the World Cup in 2010.

Yet, it won’t stop the rumours linking him with a move away from the club, especially with him having admitted in the most recent issue of FourFourTwo that he would be interested in a move to the Premier League in the future. Admissions like that will see interest in him increase tenfold, interest that Athletic will have to work hard to stamp out and convince Llorente that his future lies within the confides of Bilbao.

Keeping Bielsa

The mad man from Argentina, having arrived at the beginning of the season following a four-year stint as Chile manager, Bielsa has completely changed the fortunes of the club on the pitch. Despite the club finishing a lowly 10th in La Liga, Bilbao finished runners-up in both the Europa League and the Copa del Rey.

‘Loco’ has brought in his South American influence to the club, with Athletic and the fans reaping the rewards with the brilliant brand of football that has seen them dubbed one of the most exciting teams in Europe at the moment. Yet, much like Llorente and his performances on the pitch, Bielsa’s coaching capabilities having gone unnoticed.

Soon-to-be-former Barcelona head coach Pep Guardiola praised Bielsa to high heaven earlier this season, lauding him as his potential replacement at the Camp Nou, a sentiment echoed by Lionel Messi. The Blaugrana eventually replaced Guardiola with his assistant Tito Vilanova for the next season, but the worry is there for Athletic that big club’s will come sniffing around the 56-year-old.

Yesterday, Athletic Bilbao confirmed that Bielsa has indeed committed his future to Atletic Bilbao.

One player sure to leave

Versatile defence minded midfielder Javi Martinez is one that will be leaving Athletic this summer. The Spanish international, who has been heavily linked with a move to the Premier League, is reported to be joining Bayern Munich when the transfer window reopens at the beginning of June. The news will come as a bitter blow to the club, with the 23-year-old often utilised as a centre-back under Bielsa.

Equally comfortable in the middle of the park, Martinez, himself a World Cup winner in 2010, was always expected to leave the club this summer, but will still be a big blow to the Basque side. It will be important for the club to replace him quickly and hold onto the aforementioned duo in order to increase their chances of success for the future.

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