By Paul Macdonald
They haven't been there since 1998; Athletic Bilbao are too storied a club to have been isolated from Europe's elite for so long. But after a convincing 3-1 defeat of Sevilla at San Mames on Sunday, Champions League football is within sight again.
After near misses in the Copa del Rey final (twice) and also in the Europa League in recent years, this season looks set to be rewarded with tangible success. Fourth spot, with the financial implications and prestige that it brings, is as good as a third trophy in Spain, and crucially Athletic have the solid foundation from which to build and potentially make it their own for an extended period.
It's thrilling for the region, yet there is a lingering doubt. The abundance of talent in this squad is of no secret to Europe's major clubs, who are gearing up for a summer harvest. Javi Martinez (€40 million) and Fernando Llorente (Bosman) have been plundered in the recent past (imagine what this team could achieve had those players been retained!) and essential elements of this side will be similarly targeted.
Nineteen-year-old Aymeric Laporte, a centre-back beyond his years, has been linked with Bayern Munich, and has a tantalising buy-out clause set at €36m. Ander Herrera, who bulleted home a header to see off Sevilla, was coveted by Manchester United last summer and, given their supposed transfer kitty, they will likely be back for more.
Iker Muniain is a player appreciated by Manchester City and Manuel Pellegrini, who allegedly sees him as his new Isco, and would like to bring him to England as part of the Premier League club's annual splurge. Aritz Aduriz has been so impressive that there’s suggestions Barcelona see him as the 'Plan B' forward that they've never been able to capture since the days of Pep Guardiola.
And, of course, there's the issue of Ernesto Valverde.
It's no secret that Barcelona have placed him on their shortlist should Tata Martino depart at the end of the campaign, and could any coach ever turn down the chance to manage such a prestigious club, even with the incessant scrutiny that accompanies the post?
Valverde potentially could. He is Athletic, having enjoyed a popular spell as a player in the 90s and previously as coach in 2003. He represents this club, and their move from the uncertainty and confusion that marred the end of Marcelo Bielsa's reign is down in no small part to his philosophy, the one so craved by Barca. Loyalty is a lost art in football but it still means something in Bilbao.
It's imperative that the project that Valverde will move to the next stage with a single win from their three remaining games is used as a foundation, and not as a high watermark. Laporte, Ander, Muniain, Aduriz – they are all vital. It's a summer where Bilbao can be content with their position and dwell on what they've achieved while allowing the team to be broken up, or they can show their intent. Keep their stars, and prove to them their ambition. Give them all no reason to leave.
Given the Basque player rule, simple currency is of little use – it can't be reinvested in the conventional manner. Instead, Athletic's youth teams are their method of refreshing the squad. Jonas Ramalho has represented Spain at every level until Under-19, and at only 20 is gaining experience on loan at Girona. Unai Lopez has been regularly monitored by Manchester City. Inaki Williams struck 36 goals for the youth team last term and is on the verge of a breakthrough. Twenty-year-old Guillermo hit his first senior goal versus Betis in February. The next generation are ready to make their mark.
If the players that have earned their stripes over the past few seasons remain to supplement the cantera stars, then Bilbao might be the next side to emerge from the shadow of Real Madrid and Barcelona and lay claim to a title challenge.
Which route will they choose?
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