Athletic Bilbao’s resounding victory over Atletico Madrid on Sunday sent shockwaves of fear reverberating around the Primera Division. In a repeat of the 2012 Europa League final, Bilbao gave Atletico a real lesson and a slice of revenge for the humiliation in Bucharest last season, winning 3-0. We saw shades of Bilbao returning to the force they once were and the team we’d yearned to see for so long, but can the team achieve moderate success in light of their outstanding season in 2011/12?
Since that final in 2012, a final Bilbao lost 3-0, the two teams have gone in different directions. Atletico have been awesome and kept pace with league leaders Barcelona for much of the season but Bilbao stuttered and hovered above the bottom 3, shipping in goals as often as they had once scored them.
Bilbao suffered another humiliation to Atletico earlier in the season, losing 4-0 at the Vicente Calderon as they sat rock bottom having conceded 11 in their opening 2 games. The energy so crucial to their unique style of play had vanished and players such as Iker Muniain, Ander Herrera and Markel Susaeta looked average at best.
Wantaway players Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente further disrupted squad mentality as Marcelo Bielsa failed to deal with the expectations and demands of his players, showing Bilbao were perhaps suffering from their own success. Llorente remained at the San Mames, featuring predominantly from the bench as Bielsa’s preferred method of dealing with the troublesome striker, but has since signed a deal with Juventus which will take him to Italy in the summer.
News of Llorente’s transfer came through at the end of last week, ending months of speculation and dressing room unrest, Bilbao perked up and put in their best shift since Llorente roared on the front line of Los Leones, ripping the league’s second placed team to shreds like a starving beast.
Suddenly the team clicked; Susaeta and Herrera the catalysts for the entire team. The hosts creativity reached the levels of last season and caused problems for Atletico’s defenders. In midfield Bilbao kept possession defiantly and confidently before realising the killer pass. It was as though confidence had been injected into the team suddenly as Bilbao had the knowledge to boss the game again.
Last season Bilbao played as the very definition of a team; they stuck together and worked vigilantly for each other, but lacked that dominating presence to give the team a boost in the tougher times. The early part of this season has been extremely difficult, dropping out of Europe with a whimper and consistently letting in sloppy goals, and have lacked that imposing figure. Maybe if there was such a person embedded in the squad then the selfless system which can overpower opponents would fall to pieces.
But during the Llorente saga when Bielsa would lose his head and leave players feeling uneasy with his man management methods, an unperturbed figure could have sewn the Bilbao quilt back together. But now Llorente has the contract he was searching for, the team are one and showed their power on Sunday.
Marcelo Bielsa was quick to play down the performance however, perhaps fearful of his squad’s ego inflating again.
“We were lucid at times, like we were in some phases against Real Betis, but we need continuity. If we can extend the acceptable level of play then we can start talking about recovery from the first half of the season. We needed attention, concentration and stress and we have to play with these attributes. Not to mention the other latest football scores from our rivals means we have to stay switched on and maintain that gap at the top of the table.”
Contrary to Bielsa’s concern, the stats backed up the stellar performance. Susaeta helped himself to a goal and an assist, plus a number of shots which Thibaut Courtois did well to keep out. Herrera also managed an assist as he dictated play through the middle and, for a change, Bilbao looked assured defensively against one of the most attacking teams in Europe!
Many were blown away by Bilbao last season, becoming instant supporters of not only the beauty of their football, but the moral and ethics of a unique club. One game doesn’t announce a revival – but it can initiate one. Bilbao aren’t in any cup competitions this season, a stark contrast to last year, so a push towards the top 7 teams is likely if they can thrive off the back of the Atletico result. It has been long overdue but we’re all hoping this is the second wind for Bielsa’s men because they play sumptuous, breathtaking football at times.
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