We take a look which attacking players need to step it up in La Liga to see Athletic Club push on under Marcelino.
Athletic Bilbao came close to a major early season La Liga boost last weekend with only a late equaliser by Barcelona’s Memphis Depay having seen them denied victory in front of 9,394 fans at Estadio San Mamés.
Los Leones had initially gone ahead just after the restart when Inigo Martinez nestled a glancing header past Neto, thus ending a run of four matches without a goal for the hosts.
Their lack of luck in front of goal is no surprise given their lack of striker options.
Just as they did in the season opening stalemate against Elche, Athletic Club once again opted for a front two pairing iof Inaki Williams (initially a winger) and Oihan Sancet (a young central midfielder by trade). Both were supported by Iker Muniain and Alex Berenguer from the wings, whilst Unai Vencedor and Dani Garcia offered protection as the double pivot.
Veteran Raul Garcia at 35-years-old was the striker option called upon from the bench, however given his age it remains to be seen what significant part, if any, he will play this season. He has notched 204 league appearances and 56 goals since arriving from Atletico Madrid in 2015, although again it needs reminding that Garcia is also a central midfielder by trade.
Asier Villalibre is the only out-and-out striker in Athletic’s squad. He was called upon for the final 15mins against Elche on the opening day but ignored against Barcelona.
This first full season under Marcelino was always going to be a testing one for Athletic Club having scaled rather lofty heights last season by winning the Supercopa de España and finishing runners-up in the Copa del Rey. Nevertheless Marcelino himself is a very ambitious manager and he will most certainly expect a league improvement over the course of the 2021/22 campaign having seen them finish mid-table last season with a lowly total of 46 points.
Yet to see improvement over a 38-game La Liga season would require consistency in performance and an improvement on the 46 goals they accumulated last season.
Therefore which attacking players needs to step it up in to see Athletic Club push on in the league under Marcelino?
Williams has been heralded as Athletic Club’s next saviour since hitting the scene back in 2014/15. However, now at 27-years-old and having appeared in each and every La Liga match over the past five seasons, the time has come to push on and make a real name for himself.
Having scored 13 goals in 2018/19, he has since only notched six La Liga goals in each of the last two seasons. This total will require improvement if both himself and the club are to improve on last season.
Whether from the right, left or centrally, the onus is now very much on Inaki Williams to spearhead the club onto greater heights. He always had the scintillating pace and dribbling ability but now he also has the experience to match his talents. Can he push on with his beloved Los Leones in the league as he did in last season’s Supercopa de España?
Having burst on to the scene nearly a decade ago as the then young star of Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic side who took Europe on an amazing ride, Muniain will certainly go down as one of the club’s all-time greats having since accumulated 351 appearances in La Liga.
However, having never reached double figures for goals and never assisted more than four goals in a league season – with only five goals and three assists coming last season – it does leave a slight taste of what might have been for Muniain’s Athletic career.
Injury issues have certainly hampered him at times but there is no denying the fact that a season best league total of seven goals is disappointing for a player with such clear talent.
Whilst occupying a wide-playmaker role under Marcelino he will need to seriously step-up both his goals and assists ratio if Athletic Club are to progress from mid-table underperformers to European challengers in La Liga.
As previously mentioned, Villalibre is the only recognised striker in the Athletic Club squad. At 23-years-old he will expect to push on this season and attempt to tie down one of Marcelino’s two striker spots in his preferred 4-4-2.
Having progressed through the ranks, Villalibre’s scoring record has been sporadic at best with only seven La Liga goals since scoring an impressive 23 goals in 17 appearances for Bilbao Athletic in Segunda Division B – Grupo II in 2018/19.
A run of games in his favoured position would certainly help matters. That would go a long way to confirming whether he prefers to be Athletic’s in-house trumpet player or their heavily relied-upon goalscorer for the next decade.
One to watch: Nico Serrano
At 18-years-old Serrano has never competitively made it on to the pitch in an Athletic Club shirt. However, having made it into the matchday squad against both Elche and Barcelona it certainly won’t be long until he makes his debut for Los Leones.
Serrano is very highly-rated at Estadio San Mamés with much expected of him. He is known as a determined individual and prefers to operate off the left-wing whilst also being an adept finisher.
Whilst it is certainly too early to say whether they can shape him into the next Aduriz, Zarra, Pichichi or Llorente, his progress is certainly worth keeping an eye on this season.
Me and my partner crossed the Nervión river before approaching the Guggenheim Museum. This stunning piece of modern architecture epitomises the structural essence of Bilbao; a stunning blend of both old and new, having opened in 1997 and helped turn a then struggling industrial town into a cultural metropolis. We carried on along the Nervíon, where we approached a maze of green spaces – providing both a relaxing setting and recreational outlet for locals within the concrete jungle of a city.
We chatted between each other as we looked back on our first three days of a five-night stay in the Basque Country. Our time there had seen us indulge pretty heavily in the local cuisine (mainly cerveza, vino tinto and pintxos), whilst the Friday night had seen us celebrate our engagement in a traditional Basque restaurant in the Casco Viejo (Old Town) district.
Yet on this particular day, and slightly different to our first two days in the city, there was a certain sense of anticipation in the air. Flags adorned balconies throughout each and every side street. It was match day in Bilbao as the red and white of Athletic Club was proudly on display in preparation for the visit of Getafe.
This was my second visit to the city. I first visited back in 2012, when Manchester United were completely outplayed over two legs against Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic in a UEFA Europa League last-16 tie. The city and its inhabitants certainly left its mark on me back then, so much so that I always insisted on heading back there one day – especially with a new stadium to be ticked off.
The Old San Mamés that I visited back then, also known as La Catedral, has since been replaced by a rather futuristic modern-build version San Mamés. As impressive as it is, when we first approached the stadium on our second day, I couldn’t help but yearn for the romanticism of the old one. Nonetheless I was still satisfied to have been lucky enough to attend a match before its demolition in June 2013.
We reached the stadium’s surrounding streets a couple of hours before kick-off. Desperate for a beverage, we made a beeline to a bar called Bar Swansea. Now, this isn’t a British bar or nothing like that, it’s a traditional bar which serves a great choice of pintxos and alcohol. According to the bar manager, the name is thought to come from the original owner of the bar who came to adore Swansea following a holiday there.
Having finished our drinks and pintxos, we made our way from Bar Swansea towards the ground itself, where around ten different bars, accompanied by the odd souvenir shop, creates a passageway to the San Mamés. Again, we stopped along the way, ensuring that we weren’t missing out on any local delicacies.
We headed for our seats around 45 minutes before kick-off. Stopping for the obligatory photo outside of the stadium, we took in the view – a stadium resembling a spacecraft, with aluminium-looking spears pointing downwards towards the unknowing fans as they search for their turnstile.
It had none of the essence of the Old San Mamés, although in truth, how could this new-build ever come close to the soul and history of La Catedral?
Seated in the heavens, we had quite the view of the internal organs of the stadium, although if I’m being honest I opted for the cheapest tickets (€45) available to us from the ticket booth the day prior the match. Yet none of that seemed to bother us. It’s all about being part of the wider sense of the match; the camaraderie, singing and enjoyment.
There was to be very little of the latter. Getafe, despite conceding the majority of possession to Athletic (71%-29%), were much more potent in attack. They sat back, absorbed and nullified Athletic’s blunt forward line, before countering and displaying a killer instinct that has seen them rise to lofty heights in La Liga.
Getafe took the lead when Damian Suarez broke forward and sliced the Athletic back-line open like a hot knife through butter, before his well-placed shot beat Unai Simon in the Athletic goal. This was Damian Suarez’s first of the season and he was rightly overjoyed.
The goal did nothing to awaken a sleepy San Mamés crowd. The atmosphere had been pretty subdued from the off. We were relatively surprised at the low-key nature of the home fans, with the team’s woeful performance dampening it even further.
Athletic went in at half-time 1-0 down. Their manager, Gaizka Garitano, undoubtedly did his best to generate some sort of reaction. Nevertheless, just five minutes into the second half the game was pushed out of reach as a VAR awarded penalty saw Jaime Mata power one home to the bottom-right corner of Unai Simon’s goal.
Athletic did their utmost to garner a comeback with a triple substitution on the hour mark. Aritz Aduriz, the legendary and soon to be leaving striker, replaced his long-term replacement Asier Villalibre up-front, Ibai Gomez came on for Unai Lopez on the wing, whilst Ander Capa replaced Ivan Lekue at full-back. This, however, failed to kick-start a flailing Athletic.
Gaizka Garitano appeared flat on the touchline compared to Getafe’s Pepe Bordales. This wasn’t helped as VAR struck again by disallowing a goal for Athletic on 80mins. This was quickly followed by Ibai Gomez’s shot hitting the bar on 84mins, before Aritz Aduriz shot wide on 90mins.
A strong finish on the whole by Athletic, where one goal could easily have seen the match turn on its head. However, Getafe had more quality overall and rightly saw the match out to the dismay of the home fans.
The standard on show from both sides wasn’t the best, yet neither was the atmosphere. Perhaps I expected too much following my previous visit to the Old San Mamés. New grounds tend to take time to build that affinity with the home fans. As years go by, memories are created and unforgettable nights are experienced – none more so than Athletic’s subsequent home match resulting in a 1-0 Copa del Rey quarter final victory against Barcelona.
Athletic have since guaranteed their place in the final where they will face arch rivals Real Sociedad in Sevilla. This will be their fourth cup final in 11 years, quite the feat as they continue to follow their La Cantera policy of only fielding Basque heritage players. I’ll once again be keeping a close eye on their final, quietly cheering on this special side.
In our first Groundhopper feature for a fair while, Gethin recounts his recent visit to the Basque Country, as he took in the San Mamés and Mendizorrotza, whilst also catching a brief glimpse of the Ipurua Municipal.
The Basque Country, famous for its politics, pinchos and football. Four teams represent the Basque Country in La Liga, Athletic Club Bilbao, Real Sociedad, SD Eibar and Deportivo Alaves. All four of these clubs have supporters who want to be an independent Basque nation as there is various Basque flags proudly flown around stadiums. I went to Euskadi, as it is known in the Basque language, to see two matches and to discover how big football is in this region.
The first match I went to was at the famous San Mamés for Athletic Club Bilbao against the Swedish miracle men Östersunds FK. Athletic Club is undoubtedly the most political club in the Basque Country. They have a famous policy of only allowing players from the French and Spanish Basque and Navarre to play for the club, and football fans around Spain embrace this. Some players such as Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Ander Herrera have all departed from Athletic to join clubs in other countries, leaving fans frustrated as one supporter referred to Athletic Club ‘as the biggest club in the world’ and doesn’t understand why they would leave a club like this.
The admired rule resulted in success for Lehoiak (the Lions) as they are one of three clubs to have never been relegated from the Primera Division, alongside Barça and Real Madrid. They are one of the most successful clubs in Spanish football with several La Liga titles and Copa Del Rey cups to their name.
They usually appear in the UEFA Europa League, which is the competition I got to to see this glamorous club play in for the first time. Their opponents were Östersunds FK from Sweden. Located in the Northern part of the country and founded in 1996, the last few years have been incredible for them. In 2016 they were promoted to the Allsevenskan for the first time, and now, after a year in Sweden’s top division, they’re the only team from Sweden to be playing in a European competition this season.
We arrived in Bilbao on match-day and the second I arrived, I sensed that Athletic were playing at home. I wandered around the city looking for the Spanish football newspaper “Marca” and in every bar and shop there was an Athletic flag in the windows. It was clear that Bilbao is a football-mad city. As it was time to head towards the stadium you would pass the odd Athletic shirt and an Östersunds shirt in the city centre, and the atmosphere was building more every yard.
We finally arrived at the San Mamés. This was not the first time I have laid eyes on this incredible stadium, as me and my Dad wandered around the ground last year when we visited Bilbao for the first time, but Athletic were not playing at home, but even then, you could still clearly sense that the people of Bilbao live for the beautiful game.
When Athletic are at home, it’s ten times better. As kick off was getting nearer, more and more supporters would come out on to the streets. A huge street leads up to the stadium that is full of bars with Athletic flags, scarfs and memorabilia, which might be familiar for Wales fans who attended the game against the Basque Country in 2006 at the old San Mamés, which was located in the same site as where the new stadium is now.
Amongst the Athletic supporters were Östersunds fans. Throughout conversations we had with Östersunds fans, they were saying how proud they are of their team and their incredible story, which is similar to Eibar’s amazing story in La Liga.
With around half an hour to go till kick-off, it was time to head to the ground. In the vicinity of the old stadium, it was full and it was a big game, as Athletic were yet to get a victory in Group J. The other game in the group was in the German capital, as Hertha Berlin hosted Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk. The last time Athletic Club and Östersunds met it ended in a 2-2 draw in Sweden. Athletic had also drawn 0-0 away to Hertha and lost at home against Zorya, so the only option was a win for Athletic if they wanted to keep their European hopes alive.
Inside the stadium, it’s even better, with the pitch as green as ever.
In the first half, both sides came very close, and it was an even game. Athletic came the closest following Raul Garcia’s powerful that was brilliantly saved by the keeper. In the second half, Athletic Club took the lead thanks to veteran forward Artiz Aduriz’s header. The Swedes rarely attacked in the second half, and it was fair to say that Athletic deserved the victory.
Personally, I thought it was a great game, as there were many chances created, which added an extra excitement to the game, but what was really significant was the atmosphere. As soon as the club anthem was blasted out, there was non-stop singing, and the roar when the ball hit the back of the net was incredible. In the other game, Hertha won 2-0 meaning Athletic were third in the group and Östersunds sat first in the table.
As the city of Bilbao fell quiet, it was another brilliant Spanish football day out. It’s becoming a bit more than a hobby now.
On the Friday, we left Bilbao to head to San Sebastian, the home of Real Sociedad. Last year, I went to the Anoeta (Sociedad’s stadium) to watch them play against Basque rivals Alaves. The home side won 3-0 but the most standout thing that day was the Alaves support.
In Spain, not many away fans travel to watch their team play away from home, but Alaves brought at least 2000 supporters to the 2016 European capital of culture. It may be local for them, but the support throughout the day was incredible, both in the stadium and around the city centre.
It was also in 2016 I went to watch Osasuna face Real Betis. Osasuna is located in Pampalona, which is in the Navarre region. The debate about whether Navarre is in the Basque Country has been going for decades, but in the El Sadar (Osasuna’s stadium) there were numerous Basque flags proudly shown. The away side won 2-1 with a last minute goal.
Back to this year, and when me and my family were on the way to San Sebastian, we stopped at the town of Eibar. This is a very small town located right in the middle of the Basque mountains, but what’s so significant about this place is the football. Incredibly, Eibar has a team in the Primera Division, and has been on an incredible rise through the Spanish pyramid. Their promotion from the Segunda division in 2014 was the start of something special. They’ve been in La Liga for a few years now and have established themselves as a top-tier side.
Eibar is a club that’s linked with Scottish football. Their ultras group is called “Eskozia La Brava” which translates to Scotland the brave in Basque. They admire the passionate support the Scots have, and have a mosaic located in the town about the connection between the two sets of supporters.
The ground is tiny for a club in such a huge league, but the club itself is very friendly. We asked the front desk in the stadium if we could go inside the Estadio Irpura. They politely said no, but did give us a free pin badge and a poster of the 2017-18 squad. In the town, there were many, many Eibar flags in windows, which shows the support this incredible club has. It was very clear what the team’s incredible journey meant to the town.
As we arrived in San Sebastian, we passed the Anoeta on the motorway going into the city centre, and there was work going on there. Ever since Sociedad moved from their old stadium (Atocha) the fans have complained about how far the pitch is from the stands. The club has taken notice of the situation and have a plan to move the stands closer to the pitch, which will complete in 2019.
In the town centre, it is clear that the people of Bilbao has more passion for their club than the people of San Sebastian have for theirs, but you would spot shirts and flags in bars and fake merchandises in tourists stores alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid jerseys.
After a walk around the city and stuffing ourselves with Pinchos, it was time to watch my favourite Spanish team play; Real Betis. Me and my Dad watched the game against Getafe in an Eibar fan bar in the middle of the old town in San Sebastian. Betis thankfully came from 2-0 down to make it 2-2 to continue their strong start to the season. Another day in the Basque country, no game, but plenty of football involved.
On the Saturday, we departed from San Sebastian with a copy of “Marca” to recap the Betis game and to see what they had to say of it, and headed to the Basque capital, Vitoria.
The team located in Vitoria is Deportivo Alaves, and Liverpool fans might be familiar with this club, as they faced each other in the 2001 Uefa Cup final which ended in a 5-4 victory to the Merseyside club. Since that final, Alaves have been stuck in the Segunda Division and Segunda B.
However, in 2016, they were finally back in La Liga, and reached the Copa Del Rey final, only to lose to Barcelona in the last official game at the Estadio Vicente Calderón, Atletico Madrid’s old ground. Like Eibar, they’ve had a fairly slow start to the season, and are clearly missing their manager that was with them last season, Mauricio Pellegrino, who left for English side, Southampton.
My second and final game of the trip was at the Estadio Mendizorrota between Alaves and Espanyol. My first impression of the city of Vitoria is that it’s again, like Bilbao, football mad. It’s not a city that attracts many tourists, and there was a better vibe and atmosphere.
In the old town, many civilians were out enjoying pinchos, with most of them wearing Alaves tops. Every Saturday, it’s market day in the old town in Vitoria, and it was really busy. As it was match day, maybe a few more people came out than usual. After a few hours enjoying the pinchos in the Basque capital and a walk around the city, it was time to head towards the direction of the ground.
For this game, I went with my Dad, as usual, my sister, who went to the Sociedad-Alaves game last year, my cousin, Tom, and my uncle, Rhys, who went to the Athletic game as well. For a year, I’ve been non-stop chatting about the Spanish football results with Tom, and it’s clear that maybe he wasn’t very interested, so it was good to bring him to his first taste of Spanish Football and to realise why I love it so much
On the way to the ground, we stopped in a bar to watch the first half of the game between Deportivo La Coruna and Atletico Madrid, which was the 16:15 game. The Alaves game kicked off at 18:30 local time, but there wasn’t exactly many people in the bar we were in.
As we headed closer towards the Mendizorrota, the atmosphere was building. In the distance, we could hear drums and people singing, and as we got closer, it was getting louder. Suddenly, as the Alaves team bus came through, something incredible happened. An incredible flow of pyros appeared out of nowhere, and all you could see was a wave of red and orange. The singing was loud as well, and it was something to inspire the team following their bad start.
A couple of weeks before this match, Alaves hooligans were caught in the spotlight. On a day when they were at home to Real Sociedad, Racing Santader ultras travelled from the Cantabria part of Northern Spain, to fight Alaves fans. Many videos went viral in the and the footage was brutal.
On match day in San Sebastian, me and my Dad spoke to some Alaves ultras and they kindly gave me a scarf. After the pyro show, we wanted to see if we could see them again, and within five seconds, we bumped into an individual that we met. He remembered us straight away, and he looked delighted to see us. He was with another person that either I don’t remember or wasn’t at the game against Sociedad. They took us to a bar in the middle of numerous apartments and introduced us to new people and people that were there last year. The group in fact have been banned from following Alaves away.
In the bar, there were loads of Alaves memorabilia on the walls, and chants were sung. After a good hour, it was time to head to the match. On the way, we were discussing how much we hate Real Madrid. I refer to Madrid as General Franco’s team, and so do they. We hate Madrid with a passion, and we forever will. As a Welshman, I should have a “soft-spot” for them because of Gareth Bale, but I don’t think there’s nothing that can change my opinion. As we said our goodbyes, we met up with Rhys and Tom and headed straight to the turnstiles.
There’s something about the stairs that leads to the stands in some Spanish grounds. The concourse are quite low so you face up when you’re walking, and then just face the pitch, which is something special. I remember it at Levante, and the same here. In some concourse’s, you walk through the turnstile and you face the pitch straight away, such as Betis and Athletic.
Enough about concourse’s, we had a decent view from where we sat. It was an old-school ground, which might be reason for the incredible atmosphere. It was much better than Athletic’s, which was pretty special as well. As the players came on, there was a “tifo” in the Ultras with a picture of a young boy wearing an Alaves shirt with the numbers 1921, which was the year when the club was founded. It was brilliant, almost every person in the ground was chanting, and it was something else.
To make it all better, Alaves scored an absolute screamer to make it 1-0 within four minutes, and the roar then was something I’ll never experience again.
In the first half, Espanyol was by far the most attacking team, but they were reduced to ten men towards the end of the half. Still, Alaves had a few chances, and in the second half, both sides had good chances. Even though both sides attacked frequently, Espanyol definitely deserved to win and it was fair to say that Alaves were pretty rubbish and need to start performing better. Espanyol had a glorious chance to equalise right at the death, but the keeper’s heroics ensured Alaves secured the three points.
When the full time whistle went, there was a huge sigh of relief and the singing again couldn’t be stopped. It was a huge victory for Alaves, their second of the season.
This was sadly the end of another incredible Spanish football trip in the Basque Country. Football is a huge thing in this country and many people think that La Liga is rather dismal. Fair enough, that’s your opinion, but if you go to watch clubs like Alaves, Athletic, Betis and too many more to name, you soon realise that La Liga is much more than Barça and Real. In the Segunda Division, it’s so tight it’s actually astonishing. The Mendizorrota was my eleventh Spanish ground in total and my tenth in just over a year.
Once again, another top class Spanish Football weekend.
Danish champions FC Midtjylland are charging Manchester United fans 710 kroner (£71.00) for next month’s Europa League tie – three times what they asked Southampton fans to pay during the qualifying stage back in August. Here we take a look at the reason why.
Danish champions FC Midtjylland are charging Manchester United fans 710 kroner (£71.00) for next month’s Europa League tie – three times what they asked Southampton fans to pay during the qualifying stage back in August.
Manchester United fans and the British media have since rightly cried foul over the excessive-looking increase in price. However, this shouldn’t be any kind of surprise to the fans who are used to following the club along Europe’s shores.
February 23rd 2012, Manchester United scraped past Ajax 3-2 on aggregate in the Europa League last 32 round, despite being defeated 2-1 by the Dutch giants at Old Trafford. The same night, Athletic Club Bilbao beat FC Lokomotiv Moscow on away goals at La Catedral after the tie finished 2-2 on aggregate.
Both victorious sides were drawn together for the next round in what would prove to be their first meeting since the famous 1957 European Cup Quarter-final. That tie has forever been embedded in European Football history having seen Los Leones beat the Busby Babes 5-3 in the first leg at home in Bilbao, before heading out of the competition to a 3-0 defeat at United’s temporary home at Maine Road, with late-greats Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor scoring in both legs.
The 2011-12 UEFA Champions League campaign had gone much the same as this term’s; having seen United finishing third behind FC Basel and S.L Benfica in their much-fancied group.
Whilst no United fan would have been overjoyed at the demotion, many were quietly licking their lips in taboo-like manner at the European cities, grounds and bars that were potentially waiting for them in the Europa League – much like this year.
Having first of all visited The ‘Dam, United drew the Basque side and many a Red were glad to be looking at a Spanish euro-away that didn’t include the usual suspects of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Villarreal etc.
The Basques were also well known for their love of red wine and hospitality off the pitch – whilst being renowned for their la furia never-say-die attitude on it – all of which made the tie a standout amidst the draw.
What wasn’t to be expected was the eye-watering increase in ticket price that saw Athletic Club charge United fans €90.00 for the second-leg at the Old San Mamés.
Whilst I and many other a Red never begrudged paying the fee demanded, it was a hard one to swallow due to it being a 350% increase on the €20 fee the visiting Lokomotiv Moscow fans were asked to pay in the previous round.
Given this, we really shouldn’t be surprised at the £71.00 being asked of us for the upcoming FC Midtjylland tie in Denmark. Especially given the ground’s capacity is a mere 11,800 and we were only given a marginal 800-ticket allocation.
“I can understand that it’s expensive for a Manchester United fan to see FC Midtjylland and that they are angry, but that’s how it is,” explained Jacob Jørgensen, the club’s commercial director, on the Danish club’s website.
He continued: “We are in competition with Manchester United to move forward, and their huge turnover and amounts of TV money are so much greater than ours. I think we put up a very fair price, as we could easily sell out even if we made it 1,500-2,000 kroner (£150+) per ticket.”
To be honest, you can’t actually blame these smaller continental sides in increasing the prices when they draw United, due to the ever-recycled line of ‘We’re Manchester United, the world’s biggest club and we have 659million fans worldwide’ that is spouted by Ed Woodward and the marketing department to lure our next commercial partner in Mongolian dumpling manufacturing.
I’m just surprised Paul Scholes hasn’t come round to calling that particular line boring yet.
Nevertheless, opponents have now realised that if the regular match-goers aren’t willing to pay the going-price, many more will supposedly be waiting in the wings to do so.
One only needs looking back a couple of months to remember the away-end at CSKA Moscow being full of Moscow Reds – no disrespect meant towards them.
We are now that global brand the club vowed to become over the last decade or so. With that comes the burden of foreign clubs hiking prices for their Cup Finals against us and it’s the supporters picking up the tab once again.
This isn’t the first time, and certainly won’t be the last time we do so either.
Despite making a handful of appearances last year, he’s burst onto the scene with some scintillating performances this season. The twenty-one year old has six goals in nine games whilst demonstrating some real potential playing both on the wing and centrally for Athletic.
Despite his father being of Ghanaian origin and his mother of Liberian, he qualifies for Athletic’s la cantera policy having been born in the region.
This policy sets them aside in the modern game. They stand defiantly and face the powers that wish to change. La cantera goes against the grain of commercialised-squeezing that consists at most European giants.
It may hold them back from once again becoming a powerhouse of the game, but they are happily set in their ways.
Iñaki has provided the spark for Athletic whilst veteran striker, Artiz Aduriz, leads the line in true la furia style.
Thirty-four year old Aduriz, who scored a hat-trick during the Super Cup win in August, has fifteen goals in as many games this season. He has provided five assists along the way as well – proving he brings an all-round game to leading the line.
Beñat – notoriously known for lacking pace – orchestrates the team in the middle of the field. He keeps the ball ticking over whilst averaging two interceptions and tackles per game, according to whoscored.com. His set-piece prowess gives Athletic an extra weapon in their armoury. He has two goals and four assists in all competitions.
They have ever-present stalwarts such as Aymeric Laporte and Mikel San José at the back. The former provides the calmness, whilst the latter provides grit.
These players make up the backbone of a team who are looking upwards – not downwards.
When Athletic Club get ahead of steam, the region goes into frenzy. I witnessed this first-hand in 2012 when Los Leones knocked Manchester United out of the UEFA Europa League at La Catedral.
Red and white scarves dangled along the cobbled Basque streets. The locals go into true festival mode with their kalimotxos and local music.
Ernesto Valverde will be hoping that scenes like those and the type he witnessed in August when winning the Super Cup become normality – as they once were in the distant past.
Ander Herrera first came to my attention during the Europa League tie against Athletic Bilbao in 2012.
He dominated the midfield during both ties, and emphasised Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy at the San Mamés with his industrious performance.
A mate and myself were left praising him and his team whilst drinking Kalimotxos (Pints of Red wine and Coke) with locals after the 2-1 second leg defeat on that night in Bilbao.
United officials also took note, and finally completed the deal two years on from the humbling defeat in the Basque Country.
Given his mesmerising recent performances for Manchester United, the mind-boggling question is – How did Ander Herrera become United’s “odd man out” in the first place?
Nearly seven months ago on a sunny afternoon in the M16 0RA area against QPR, United fans sensed the much-needed complete midfielder had finally been delivered.
Ander Herrera of the Basque Country produced a swashbuckling performance in which he produced a goal and gave glimpse to midfield capabilities not seen since the heyday of the legendary, and particularly hard-to-replace, Paul Scholes.
Ander went on to start cementing his first-team place, and despite the patchy form United kept producing, his new venture seemed rosy.
This was until a fractured rib against West Ham brought a stop to his progress at the end of September. He was not seen for a month afterwards, until he made his comeback during the Monday night match against West Bromwich Albion.
According to reports, he picked up another knock on the ribs during the first half, and was hauled off at half time. His replacement, Marouane Fellaini, made an instant impact with a goal-scoring second-half performance and the rest was history.
Fellaini, ridiculed throughout his Manchester United career thus far, had now become indispensable in Louis Van Gaal’s eyes.
Herrera was reintroduced to the line-up nine days on against Hull City and produced an assist on his return. This would prove to be a false dawn, though.
He was pulled out of the starting line-up after the unconvincing 2-1 victory away at Southampton, in which he was substituted after 51mins, and was only seen from the beginning against lowly Yeovil Town over the course of the next two months.
To make matters worse for Herrera, The Iron Tulip reached an opinion that he was too much of a risk taker for a team looking for results, rather than performances.
What must be remembered is Ander Herrera was the main standout performer for Manchester United on that cold evening in Yeovil. He produced a 20yard effort rewarding of the man seen as Paul Scholes’ replacement, which lifted United past the League One strugglers.
However, Louis Van Gaal had other ideas. He proceeded to drop Wayne Rooney into a midfield three – sometimes as the holding-midfielder – and kept Herrera watching on from the bench.
His absence came around the same time his name was dragged into a match-fixing case going back to his time with Real Zaragoza. This might have been Van Gaal’s way of taking him out of the limelight. Who knows?
Herrera’s reprieve came due to an unfortunate injury picked up by Daley Blind during the first-half against Burnley under the Old Trafford lights on February 11th. On came Herrera, and he hasn’t looked back since.
You’d expect a player to be out-of-touch given the lack of competitive playing time he’d seen over the previous two months. However, it became immediately clear that Herrera is a natural footballer. His “off the cuff” instincts and effort outweigh any lack of match sharpness that his absence might have caused.
He built on his encouraging cameo performance against Burnley by scoring in the next two matches away at Preston and Swansea, respectively.
Ander Herrera has been a mainstay in United’s midfield ever-since. Deservedly so, may I add.
United’s renaissance could be put down to recent stability and Van Gaal’s firm choice on formation more than anything else. However, Ander Herrera’s reintroduction coinciding with the run of form should not be ignored.
In my eyes, he’s the fine definition of a complete-midfielder. He brings box-to-box elements to a midfield that has looked static – to say the least – over the last few years.
In addition, his eye for that final ball certainly cannot be faulted. Look no further than the pass he produced for Juan Mata’s opener away at Anfield. The link-up play and “brotherly-love” United’s midfield Spaniards put on show that afternoon is something the Red Army should get giddy about.
Manchester United fans would have been forgiven if they thought the International Break had come along at the wrong time, given the form on show.
They were to be proven wrong though, as Herrera and co. produced another solid performance against Aston Villa this past weekend.
It might have been Rooney’s stunning finish that stole the headlines, but it was Herrera’s brace which emphasised his importance to this current United side.
In this form, he is truly un-droppable. The Basque gem of Manchester is certainly here to stay.