Thursday night football may be second-best but there is a lot to anticipate from the tie between Manchester United and Athletic Bilbao.
Nearly 7,000 Basque fans are on their way to Old Trafford, buoyed by Sunday’s win in the derby against Real Sociedad. Their team trail 30 points behind Real Madrid in La Liga, yet they are well-placed to challenge for a Champions League place and have a cup final to look forward to against Barcelona.
Athletic are on the up and this is an opportunity for one of Spain’s historic clubs to test themselves against top foreign opposition again. There is history to it as well. These two clubs have met just once before, when United eventually went through 6-5 on aggregate in one of those European Cup epics, just 12 months before the Munich air crash.
This is also an opportunity to see two top managers go head to head. Marcelo Bielsa doesn’t have Alex Ferguson’s trophy haul but he’s one of the most respected managers around for his 10 years in charge of Argentina and Chile and he’s had a major impact in his first full season at a European club. Bielsa is known for his experiments and for using players out of position, which may partly explain his nickname of El Loco.
But most of all this tie provides the chance to see how Athletic’s homegrowns fare against United’s assembly of talent.
Bilbao is not the most glamorous of cities, despite a nice old quarter and a great new art gallery, and only the docks are left of its industrial heritage, but the people are immensely proud of their history and their struggle for independence — and the football team is a living symbol of that.
It seems amazing that Athletic’s policy of signing only Basques and the sons of Basques has survived, let alone that the club should be thriving.
They didn’t start off like that and the policy has been modified over the years. The Basque catchment area nowadays extends well beyond the politically-defined autonomous region. Euzkal Herria, as they call it, stretches along the coast and into France and also includes the large interior province of Navarra, and in particular Pamplona.
Several of the current Athletic side came through the ranks at Pamplona’s own club Osasuna, hence the ironic chant by Osasuna fans, “they’re not from Lezama, they’re from Tajonar” — Lezama being Athletic’s famous training centre, set up 40 years ago.
Even so the policy is unique, and Lezama, which was renovated and expanded in 1995, was well ahead of its time. Barcelona’s legendary La Masia academy was set up eight years later.
Half of the current squad, and most of the newer players, are direct products of Lezama, including the young stars Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain and their main striker Fernando Llorente.
It has been an up-and-down season for them in the league: victories followed by setbacks, a good draw against Barcelona and a win at Sevilla followed by defeat at home to lowly Granada. Away from home Athletic have shipped goals, four against Real Madrid and Paris St Germain in their final Europa League group stage match, although they had already qualified by then.
The match of their season so far was undoubtedly the 2-2 draw with Barcelona. Athletic’s San Mames stadium — popularly known as The Cathedral — has never been an easy venue for the Catalans (nor Real Madrid) but this was special.
“I’ve never come up against a side playing with that intensity,” said Pep Guardiola. Twice behind, Barcelona equalised in stoppage time through Leo Messi, thanks to a mix-up involving the Basque keeper Gorka Iraizoz.
Athletic’s weakness at the back could well be exploited by United, but in attack they move the ball quickly and well, they have enough pace to trouble most defenders and Llorente can score goals in the air and on the ground.
La Liga has become a two-horse race as usual — this season it’s even threatening to become a one-horse race — so this is a game which should show us whether there is some genuine strength in depth in Spanish football or whether the real quality is confined to the Big Two.
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