By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
It was a team that captivated a continent. Athletic Bilbao's breathtaking runs to the final of the Europa League and the Copa del Rey last season seemed to signal the start of something special under Marcelo Bielsa, but less than six months on, the Basques' brilliant dream is dying.
So where did it all go wrong?
The problems started in the summer. Bielsa fell out with the board in July after berating builders at a press conference, for supposed shoddy work at the club's training ground, even offering his resignation before deciding to stay. Something, however, had changed in his relationship with president Josu Urrutia and the uncertainty was transmitted to the players, many of whom had were linked with departures following their fine form in 2011-12.
Javi Martinez was chased all summer by Barcelona and Bayern Munich, eventually joining the Bavarians in a €40 million deal which left plenty of money in the bank for Athletic, but also a sour taste in the mouth.
Athletic's stuttering start
|1||Marcelo Bielsa's side have picked up just one point in four Europa League games, losing the last three|
|4||The Basques have won just four times in 2012-13, although they have claimed victories in their last two league games|
|9||Athletic conceded nine times in their opening two games this term, letting in five against Betis and four at Atletico|
|14||The Bilbao side have 14 points in La Liga but look more healthy now after back-to-back wins|
|20||They have scored 20 goals in 16 games this term, but star striker Fernando Llorente has only netted one of those|
|40||The millions earned from the sale of Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich. That money, though, was never spent|
Luckily for Athletic, summer signing Aritz Aduriz has stepped up with eight goals so far this term in La Liga, even though he was a player Bielsa revealed he had not requested.
Instead, the former Chile coach had asked his board to bring in left-back Nacho Monreal from Malaga and Antoine Griezmann from Real Sociedad, but neither arrived and the latter's signing would have been impossible for a number of reasons: his release clause is set at a prohibitive €30m, he plays for Athletic's fiercest rivals and, most significantly of all, he was not born in any of the territories from which Bilbao can field their players under their policy of bringing in only Basque-born footballers.
With Martinez gone, Athletic considered bringing in Real Betis' Benat but were put off by the Andalusians' asking price of €20m - a lot of money for a player they themselves had allowed to leave for nothing just years earlier.
Three others - David Lopez, Ustarirz and Galder Cerrajeria - were then allowed to depart on the final day of the transfer window, leaving the club short of personnel ahead of another long season. In 2011-12, Bielsa had used the same 12 or 13 players virtually all season and they had finished fatigued following their runs in the two cup competitions, plus La Liga on top of that.
And this season seems similar already; even with injuries Bielsa is sticking to the same side as much as possible and appears reluctant to use players from the youth academy, even though several are tipped to make it to the very top. One of them, midfielder Inigo Ruiz de Galarreta, has featured, but ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament on his left knee in late October and will now miss the rest of the season.
To make matters worse, goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz has endured a difficult start to the campaign and has been at fault for a number of the goals conceded - including two strikes in the recent 3-2 defeat at home to Lyon in the Europa League.
After losing the final of the Copa del Rey to Barcelona last season, Bielsa told his players they would have to wait a "long, long time" before they got a shot at another trophy, in a dressing room message later leaked to the press in another forgettable episode.
The Argentine coach remains popular with the fans for his bold brand of football but has won few friends among the players with his stubborn attitude and Athletic have already lined up their former coach Ernesto Valverde as a possible replacement.
On current form, it does indeed seem the club will have to wait a long time for success similar to that of last season and, given his track record of short spells as coach and his troublesome tenure so far at San Mames, Bielsa is unlikely to be around to see it, in any case.
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