I didn’t realise It had been so long since I posted. A busy schedule of training and a sizeable University project are the reasons behind my neglected blog. However, Athletic Club Bilbao’s impressive demolition of Manchester United has forced me out of hibernation.
How can I resist to comment on football as good as this; such a perfect team display of skill and determination. As far as I’m concerned, it’s what the game is all about and Bilbao’s performance against the reigning English champions was a fine example of how it should be played.
Compliments have poured in from all over the world in response to the spaniards’ 5-3 aggregate win over Manchester United that saw them reach the quarter final of the Europa League.
The plaudits had already started rolling in after Athletic Club’s 3-2 victory in the first leg in which United manager Sir Alex Ferguson honestly admitted during his post match interview that his side had been ‘well beaten’ on home soil. As the Channel 5 interviewer apologised for cutting short the conversation in order to keep to the running schedule, Fergie looked relieved to be giving up air time for Steven Seagal. No doubt much to the delight of Seagal fans everywhere but also to the annoyance of those who like to see Sir Alex under pressure in front of the cameras after a defeat.
But this isn’t about Man Utd. Athletic Club continued where they left off at Old Trafford and finished the job convincingly in front an adoring and passionate home crowd in Bilbao. Their ecstatic fans even had the courtesy to chant Ryan Giggs’ name when he was substituted and applauded Wayne Rooney’s wonderful consolation goal, content in the knowledge that their team had just produced one of the finest all round performances in a European competition this season.
I’ll go as far as to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever witnessed and that’s the reason I’m writing this post. Performances like Athletic Club’s not only excite me but restore my faith in football.
The beauty for me wasn’t just the high level of technical ability on show, which has become a standard expectation for games featuring teams from La Liga, but in the execution of an overall team performance with work-rate and determination at it’s core. There’s nothing better than watching a team when it’s so obvious that every player is working so hard for one another. For me, being part of a squad with that ethos can be as a good as it gets for a player. It’s no coincidence that the most enjoyable period of my career was during my time at Leyton Orient where we had just that. There were players with skill that could change games and get us a result when we needed it, but we all knew that we could rely on each other to give everything we had, every game. If you were having an off day, you could be certain that your team-mate was doing his best to help you out because he understood that you would do the same for him. That sort of mentality breeds confidence, where you can go into any game safe in the knowledge that you’re all in it together and an atmosphere like that in a dressing room brings out the best in people.
Athletic’s player’s hunted in packs. They pressed high up the park, denying the visitors any respite, even in United’s defensive third. When the ball was recovered the home side’s tempo never dropped. Bilbao attacked at pace with the man in possession having numerous passing options as his team-mates burst a gut to join in. They should’ve added a few more goals and at 2-1 when the scoreline looked comfortable (as much as it can do against never-say-die United) not once did they lower their standards. Substitute Toquero, typified this attitude as he harried to close down United’s defender’s well into injury time.
There was a time when there was a perception held by many that the British game was too fast and physical for a lot of continental sides to cope with. In the past, our home nation sides have achieved many a European victory thanks to the ‘get your sleeves rolled up’ attitude. Athletic Club are the latest team to prove that the top European sides have many more dimensions to their game and are not just technically brilliant.
Marcelo Bielsa has moulded his young side into serious Europa League contenders. Currently they occupy seventh place in La Liga but that’s no mean feat for a club that only employs players with a Basque heritage. Could this explain their obvious desire and work ethic for the team and each other? Possibly, but Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola has hailed Bielsa as ‘currently the best coach on the planet’ so the Argentine must be doing something right. He has instilled a team ethic that is inspiring to watch.
It helps when you have the quality of the likes of player of the tie Muniain in your ranks. And it doesn’t hurt that Llorente had the audacity/confidence to despatch a 50 yard diagonal ball first time on the volley for the opening goal. Bielsa looks not only to have motivated his players to give everything for the cause but has shaped them tactically into a formidable unit. So much so that Man Utd could have been forgiven for thinking they were playing against a hungrier, fitter, more confident version of themselves. One that puts me in mind of a past United side with Roy Keane at the helm.
That comparison is maybe doing a disservice to Athletic Club who are a truly modern outfit perfectly suited to the game in it’s present form. A better more current reference to the Bilbao style of play can be found closer to home. Barcelona are the best example of the perfect hybrid of hard work and outrageous technical ability. Don’t even think of telling Guardiola that his team is a one man show. It’s true, Messi is the best player on the planet and his two mates, Iniesta and Xavi are a more than worthy support act but even with this abundance of footballing talent, Barca like Athletic Club, are greater than the sum of their parts.
Manchester United certainly played their part in a hugely entertaining cup tie but Athletic Club’s dominance in both legs over England’s finest has certainly got people at home questioning the overall standard of supposedly the best league in the world.
I can’t wait to watch Athletic Club Bilbao in the next round. Hopefully Channel 5, who’s coverage of the Europa League featuring Jim Rosenthal, Pat Nevin and Stan Collymore has been excellent, will show the latter stages of the competition. I do love a bit of Steven Seagal but surely more of Athletic Club’s own combination of action and adventure will be enough to keep the viewers entertained.