By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Athletic Bilbao must be kicking themselves. When the Basque club sold Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich for a tidy sum of €40 million (£32m) over the summer, they should have had a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings. But, Benat Etxeberria had been allowed to leave Lezama in 2008, almost without trace.
Benat, now a target for Manchester City following the arrival of Txiki Begiristain as technical director, came through the youth ranks at Athletic. But, he was unable to build on a six-minute cameo appearance against Osasuna in October 2006 and was shipped out on loan to Segunda Division B side Conquense.
That appeared to be the beginning of the end for the talented midfielder, who had featured for Spain's Under-17 side and played in a cup final for Athletic as a youngster against Barcelona's Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas. Incapable of winning a place in a mediocre midfield at San Mames, he was deemed surplus to requirements. His fortunes were about to change though and onlookers in Cuenca could hardly believe their luck. And nor could Betis.
They tracked Benat after a tip-off and were immediately impressed by the player nicknamed 'Gattuso' by team-mates at Conquense, due to his similar physique and uncanny likeness to the Italian great. Betis watched the midfielder over the course of seven games and were convinced they were on to something good. The player's agent, former Real Sociedad, Osasuna, Athletic and Espanyol goalkeeper Vicente Biurrun, told the Andalusians to speak to Bilbao and surprisingly, the Basque side allowed the youngster (then 22) to leave for free following his successful loan spell.
BENAT ETXEBERRIA, 25
MIDFIELDER | BETIS & SPAIN
Benat spent his first year at Betis B, but moved up to the Segunda Division with the senior side after injuries to Arzu, Juande and Jose Alberto Canas. His performances helped the club to promotion in his second season and he claimed cult-hero status by netting two fantastic free kicks in a 2-1 win away to eternal enemies Sevilla.
Such strikes saw Athletic take notice and the midfielder became a top target for the Basques following the departure of Javi Martinez. However, the club coached by Marcelo Bielsa were unwilling to pay the €20m (£16m) release clause for a player who was once theirs and who had been allowed to leave for nothing just three years earlier, while he was also thought to be very similar to their own Ander Herrera.
In the meantime, Benat had made his full Spain debut prior to Euro 2012, impressing in friendlies against Serbia and South Korea, although ultimately missing out on a place at the competition due to La Roja's considerable riches in the centre of the park.
Disciplined defensively, deceptively mobile and blessed with a wonderful range of passing, Benat is a free kick specialist and central creator who is something of a mixture between Xabi Alonso and Xavi in terms of his playing style; a humble and quiet man off the pitch, who prefers to do his talking on it.
With contract talks stalling at Betis, a return to Athletic looking unlikely and a move to Wolfsburg seemingly improbable following the departure of Felix Magath as coach, Begiristain will be confident of capturing his fellow Basque this winter and Bilbao's loss could be City's gain as the Premier League looks to Spain once again.
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