Three reasons why Bilbao will be a force in Champions League group stage
Tom Wellman looks at why Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and BATE Borisov shoudl take Athletic Bilbao seriously in Group H
Strong midfield makes Bilbao classy and competitive
Another of the Basque sides, Real Sociedad, endured a torrid time in the Champions League last season, but that won’t happen to Athletic, purely because of the differences in the midfield. Sociedad were reliant on Antoine Griezmann and Carlos Vela, and the pressure told on the rest of the squad who were unable to supply ammunition. In Bilbao’s case, there will undoubtedly be a constant supply for Aritz Aduriz to feed from. Bilbao have strong ball-winners in Ander Iturraspe and Mikel Rico, two players who never stop running, whilst Markel Susaeta, Iker Muniain and Benat comprise one of the most creative teams in Spain. Ibai Gomez is also a threat, taking over the void Ander Herrera left, for a team who seem to grow in strength each time a player departs.
They have one of Europe’s best young defenders
Due to their constant pressing and counter-attacking system, Bilbao have been culpable of some shoddy defensive displays during the last few years. However, with the emergence of Aymeric Laporte, the team have polished up defensively and finally finished in the top four last season. Barcelona have shown interest in Laporte, but Bilbao were able to ward them off and keep hold of their highly-rated centre-back. As has been the policy during the past few seasons, Bilbao have been unable to keep many of their top players, but another season impressing in the Champions League will ensure Los Leones get the fee they feel they deserve for Laporte. He’ll certainly impress many onlookers during the six guaranteed games Athletic will play between now and December.
Completed San Mames will become a cauldron
Despite only being three-sided, Athletic made their new home a fortress for the large part of last season. Losing just three times last season (twice to Atletico Madrid), the Basques will again make themselves tough to beat at home, especially now the construction has been completed. Questions surround the board over how they raised the finance for the new San Mames, but from a football perspective, the team will be buoyed by playing in front of a vociferous full house on matchdays. The home crowd showed they can make it tough for opposing teams as Bilbao beat Barcelona and held Real Madrid last season, and that will surely intensify when Europe’s elite come to the Basque Country.