Will Athletic Bilbao suffer first relegation from Primera Division?
Background Image: Mikel Agirregabiria, CC by 2.0
Real Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao belong to an exclusive group of Spanish football elites. Since the Primera Division’s inception in 1929, the trio's enjoy an uninterrupted stay. For the Basque club, that streak has rarely looked more at risk. The northern delegates are floundering, staring at breakout. Time is running out.
The Basque Country prides itself on its culture. For travel freaks and nomads, the iconic Guggenheim museum appeals. Those who find art boring simply can't pass on the Michelin-starred restaurants. As well as impressive modern architecture and references to Basque history, there's also the fascinating landscape, beaches and mountains.
Perhaps, the region’s most prestigious attraction is its football team, Athletic Club. Founded two years before the 20th century, Los Leones were waiting for La Liga to be born. They've remained in the top flight for all 86 seasons.
Athletic is known for its homegrown model. Only natives are eligible. Every player who pulls on the famous red and white shirt is drawn from the Basque Country and Navarre in Spain and the Northern Basque Country in France.
The harvest is always bountiful. Athletic are the fourth most successful team in Spanish football, with eight Liga titles and 23 King's Cups. The ladies aren't left out. Los Leones is a dominant force in the women’s game with five domestic championships
lt won't matter anymore if the club eventually drops down to the second-tier come May. With just one victory and eight draws in 14 matches, Athletic sit on the precipice. Villarreal are the only 'safe' club within their reach.
The slump is no shock. If anything, it was how long it took. Ernesto Valverde’s damage control measures could only last so long. After four years of perceived stability in which the club ended a 31-year wait for the Spanish Super Cup, gross anarchy has followed. Sr Valverde can't be involved. he's inherited Barcelona's insanities.
The collapse began under Cuco Ziganda and may have been finished off by Eduardo Berizzo. Neither remains employed although the former can brag he led the club to 16th. Berizzo didn’t get that luxury, booted out a third of the way through this campaign.
The pair were alike in their philosophy, relying on commitment and grit to grind out results. Los Leones are tough to beat, their midfield stocked with defensive options and hard workers to slow games down. They're also a cure for insomnia. New boss Gaizka Garitano needs to wake them up before it's too late but shoring up the back is the traditional method to stave off relegation.
The former youth coach is quite aware of his lofty task. He is known for a brand of high-intensity football San Mames fans favour. He uses the traditional 4-3-3 with his full-backs getting forward and the central midfielder dropping back into defence.
His previous work suggests that won't work. Garitano took tiny Eibar to the top flight but resigned after they finished in the bottom three in their inaugural La Liga season. A brief, unsuccessful spell at Real Valladolid was followed by another at Deportivo de La Coruna, sacked after 27 games.
However, there’s more to the decay than just managers. The Basque talent factory no longer produces to its former capacity. The Rojiblancos are limited in the final third, possessing just two strikers. Inaki Williams and 38-year-old Aritz Aduriz combine for 14 goals from 11 games. These lions are toothless.
Perhaps the January window is the right time to abolish the old, obsolete Cantera tradition and join the rest of the world. Some may call it blasphemy but there is no salvation in being left behind.