They impressed everyone and shocked the likes of Manchester United during the 2011-12 season, but Iain Strachan believes the bubble has burst for the brave Basque club
By IAIN STRACHAN
Stop the Athletic Bilbao bandwagon - it is time to get off.
On March 8, 2012, the Basque region's proud Athletic Club reached the high point of their 21st century history, beating Manchester United 3-2 at Old Trafford in the Europa League third round.
The scoreline flattered Sir Alex Ferguson's heavyweight team, then reigning English Premier League champions and beaten UEFA Champions League finalists the season before.
It was the culmination of a remarkable transformation in Athletic's fortunes under the eccentric and enigmatic Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Previously in charge of Chile's national team to great acclaim, Bielsa, a man of principle, turned down Inter Milan to honour a verbal agreement with Athletic, and set about imposing his unorthodox methods on a squad yet to make good on its considerable promise.
We already knew about Fernando Llorente, the powerful, skilful striker who enjoyed brief cameos from the bench during Spain's 2010 FIFA World Cup triumph.
Livewire forward Iker Muniain and midfielder Javi Martinez had also served notice of their burgeoning ability, and flourished under Bielsa.
Other previously unheralded players came to the fore, including Ander Herrera, Markel Susaeta and Oscar de Marcos, to name but a few.
Under Bielsa, Athletic became far more than the sum of their parts, combining an extraordinarily high-tempo, pressing strategy with quick, accurate and, above all, direct passing.
Much has been made of Bielsa's formative influence on Pep Guardiola, but last season's Athletic were no Barcelona-lite, opting to balance tiki-taka with a more ruthless streak not always evident at Camp Nou.
While dynamic, attractive football was the key ingredient behind Athletic's overnight popularity, there was another factor at work in making them the team of choice for football's bourgeois intelligentsia.
Fancying themselves the standard-bearer for Basque nationalism, Athletic are remarkable for their continued refusal to recruit players from outside the would-be autonomous region straddling the border between Spain and France.
As the recent love-in for Barca and all things Catalan have demonstrated, what self-respecting football hipster can resist the allure of a stylish, successful team comprising home-grown players, thumbing their nose at authoritarian Madrid?
Only this Athletic were a step beyond the sanitised, commercialised counterculture on sale at Camp Nou.
For one, Athletic's creaking, raucous San Mames stadium is among the oldest, and noisiest, in Spain.
Throw in the influence of unpredictable, rebellious Bielsa, and there was a match made in heaven for fashionable football.
After their victory across two legs over United, Athletic ran out of steam in La Liga, paying the price for their extraordinary physical exertions throughout the season.
They got past Schalke and Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League, only to lose 3-0 to Atletico Madrid in the final.
It was the same scoreline in the final of the Copa del Rey, with Barca fittingly dispatching their ideological cousins in Guardiola's farewell match.
For a team and a club seemingly on the rise, that disappointing finish led to a close-season of uncertainty for Bilbao.
In July, Bielsa reportedly offered his resignation, claiming to be disappointed with the Athletic hierarchy's failure to support him in the wake of an alleged altercation with a construction worker at the club's training ground.
The 57-year-old was persuaded to stay, only to spend the last two months fighting to keep star men Llorente and Martinez.
With the likes of Tottenham and Juventus circling Llorente and Martinez linked to Bayern, the duo were omitted from the Athletic squad for their Europa League playoff matches.
And with both players again missing, Athletic have lost their first two matches of the league season, 5-3 at home to Real Betis and 4-0 at Atletico.
From the giddy heights of their Old Trafford masterclass, Athletic find themselves bottom of La Liga, yet to score in domestic competition and facing the very real prospect of losing both of their two best players.
Martinez has been confirmed as a Bayern player, and while Llorente did not follow him out the door before the transfer window shut, the unhappy target man may find it difficult to replicate last campaign's form.
Bielsa and the club's president Josu Urrutia, as they are obliged to do, have spoken publicly of their determination to carry on, with or without a firing Llorente.
But the task of repeating the club's breakout success of last season will be immeasurably harder if he does depart, and a difficult 2012-13 campaign looms large.
Fortunately, for those devotees of fashionable football who clambered on the Bilbao bandwagon last season, the course of action is far easier - disembark, stow the red and white striped shirt in a draw and scan the horizon for the next bright young things of the European game.