A little under a year ago Manchester United welcomed Spanish outfit Athletic Bilbao to Old Trafford in a rare Europa League tie at the Theatre of Dreams. United had struggled in the Champions League and ended up finishing third in their group behind FC Basel and Benfica which meant a stint in European footballs ‘plate’ competition.
Sir Alex’s men were immediately installed as favourites among most bookies but after a difficult run-in with Ajax there was slightly more trepidation ahead of their tie with Bilbao in March.
In the end trepidation would have come with good reason.
Bilbao played a fearless attacking game based on passing and fast movement that left United bamboozled home and away; the final result on aggregate was 5-3 to the La Liga outfit; Manchester United had been outplayed by a mid-table Spanish side.
Their performance made them many a neutrals favourite and therefore when they progressed to the final there was plenty of attention on their doorstep. In the end they were comprehensively beaten by fellow Spanish side Atletico Madrid and the European run had taken its toll on their domestic performance. They ended up the season 10th despite being as high as fifth with just 12 games left.
However they went into the new season with plenty of promise for another successful campaign. With Valencia’s tepid strengths, Malaga’s financial irregularities and the shock relegation of Villarreal they had their eyes on a Champions League spot.
However the summer did not go exactly to plan. First Javi Martinez, the clubs talismanic young midfielder/defender completed a big money move to Bayern Munich. When Fernando Llorente also announced his decision to exit San Mames he risked the wrath of the fiery Marcelo Bielsa. As it was they kept Llorente but he has been used sparingly; this summer he joins Juventus.
Bielsa almost left, the Argentine cutting a frustrated figure at his apparent lack of options and angry at the construction work occurring at the clubs training facilities (told you he was fiery).
Of course there has been more to it than the above. The future of Fernando Amorebieta has also been a sticking point while Iker Muniain has struggled desperately for form along with the goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz. His replacement Raul Fernandez has not fared much better. The desperation is demonstrable by calls in some corners to give the number one duties to 18-year-old Spanish youth international Kepa Arrizabalaga.
The clubs Basque-only policy, while respectable in the modern age of globalised football and diluted national identity, has hindered their progress. Their failure to sign Benat from Real Betis with the Martinez money has been punished with his excellent La Liga form in Seville.
Last weekend they played in the Basque derby and were defeated 3-1 by Real Sociedad at San Mames; their third defeat on the bounce. Such poor form has left them 16th in the league table and just three points ahead of Celta Vigo in the final relegation place.
The club that has never been relegated from La Liga are suffering from their success of last season; and it could end that glorious run since 1929 if fortunes do not change quickly.
They have been in these positions before and survived but considering the form of the team currently we may have to say goodbye to one of La Liga’s three remaining pillars of consistency.
Do you think Bilbao can avoid relegation once again?
image: © Jack Tanner