What went wrong at Athletic Bilbao?
The football rivalry hierarchy isn’t going with expectation in La Liga at present. Second-place Atletico Madrid, led by the on-song Radamel Falcao, surging ahead of neighbouring Spanish champions Real Madrid. Rayo Vallecano, the ‘little brother’ of the Madrid clubs alongside Getafe, going blow-to-blow with Los Blancos, too. Levante, although not starting their season as well as last year, being better off than Valencia.
Of course, the season’s still only five games old and positions are likely to shift quite dramatically between now and the end of the season. It’d take a brave man to bet on Atleti, although looking good for a Champions League spot under the impressive leadership of Diego Simeone, finishing above Jose Mourinho’s men, despite the contrasting starts for both teams. It’d take a brave man to even consider little old Rayo getting anywhere near those from the Bernabeu come next June.
One rivalry worth particular focus this season will be that of the Basque region’s two major clubs, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad. The pair lock horns at Sociedad’s Anoeta Stadium in San Sebastian on Saturday (kick-off 7pm BST).
As with the aforementioned rivalries in La Liga, the recent hierarchy has been turned upside down in the early stages of the season. La Real go into the game with the rare bragging rights, at least for the last decade, of being top dog of the two in the Primera Division. That’s more to do with Bilbao’s sluggish start to the season, however. The San Mames side have won just one of their opening five Liga matches and sit 16th in the table going into the weekend matches. That, coupled with Sociedad having home advantage, should make the hosts slight favourites in the first Basque derby of the campaign.
So what’s happened to Bilbao? Millions were wowed by their skills, determination, relentless pressure and high-speed football as Marcelo Bielsa’s men out-played and embarrassed Manchester United over two legs in the Europa League last season. The Argentine manager was being touted as a possible successor to Pep Guardiola at Barcelona such was his success with Los Leones last season. So why the bad start to this season?
It all started towards the end of the last campaign. Tears were shed as Bilbao made two finals, the Copa del Rey and the Europa League, but got beat pretty convincingly in both, by Barcelona and Atletico Madrid respectively. Many said they’d run out of gas. Indeed, given Bilbao’s fantastic football played for long parts of last season, it’s somewhat of a shock to look back at the final league table and see them finishing tenth, missing out on a European place, and finishing above Sociedad by just two points. Their progression in two major cup competitions will have had an impact on their ‘business end’ of the campaign, no doubt.
The downward spiral continued over the summer. With success comes interest in players from other, bigger, clubs. Javi Martinez, one of, if not the, star of the Bilbao show, departed for Germany and Bayern Munich. Bielsa threatened to leave the club if Martinez left. He didn’t, but rumours did circulate that he’d resigned over a construction dispute at the club’s training ground. He didn’t. Rumours continued to link Fernando Llorente with a move to Juventus but that, as yet, has not materialised. The Spain striker is still keen for a move away from San Mames and he’s not signed a new deal, but he is back playing in the red and white stripes.
It’s all resulted in a bit of a mess at the Basque club, with rumours over the futures of Bielsa and Llorente rumbling on and probably not helping matters. It’s a mess that near-neighbours Real Sociedad will be keen to add to in San Sebastian on Saturday night and it’s a mess they’ll hope will continue throughout this season so they can regain the mantle, for a season at least, as the top Basque club.
It’s been a while for Sociedad to feel that status. The last time was in the 2002/03 campaign when they famously lost out to Real Madrid in the title race, eventually finishing second. That seems even longer ago than the decade it actually is when you speak to most Sociedad supporters. They’ve finishing behind Bilbao consistently since then, even suffering relegation in 2007 before closing the gap to just two points last term, despite Bilbao’s mouth-watering football.
The omens look good for Philippe Montanier’s men to get the upper hand in front of their own supporters this weekend. Sociedad’s start may be unspectacular but they’ve won both of their home games so far, conceding just one goal along the way, while Bilbao have picked up just a point from their two away matches, conceding seven goals in the process.
It’s a derby match that differs from others in Spain. With so many autonomous communities, it’s difficult to find two like-for-like grudge matches. Of course, Real Madrid are involved in more than most, especially when they go up against teams from Catalonia or the Basque regions, for political reasons more than anything else. Although Barcelona, in particular, and Athletic Bilbao have been two of Los Blancos’ biggest competitive rivals since the start of Spanish football.
While Bilbao and Sociedad may stand together in the Basque region, their rivalry is still a strong one, geographical-reasons aside. Athletic are well-known for priding themselves on playing Basque-only footballers and they’ve made a great success of it. Sociedad did the same until the 1980s when they signed striker John Aldridge from Liverpool as their first-ever non-Basque player. At the time the club said there was never such a policy in place, and plenty of non-Basques have pulled on the blue and white stripes since. They still have a strong academy, or cantera, in place, but simply struggle to match the finances of Bilbao when it comes to attracting the best players from a Basque pool of around 3 million people. For that, Sociedad don’t really like Bilbao.
Los Leones supporters won’t hesitate to put Real Madrid down as their most hated rivals, but that won’t take anything away from what’s set to be an intriguing basque derby in San Sebastian this weekend.
Follow me on Twitter @nicholasriggTagged in: Athletic Bilbao, football, la liga
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