This time last year, I was waxing lyrical about Athletic Bilbao and predicting (accurately) that they would upset the Anglo-centric odds and defeat Manchester United in the Europa League.
They were playing some of the best football in the world, with their crisp passing style and high-pressing game impressing all the football purists, with even Pep Guardiola purring at Marcelo Bielsa’s team.
They surged on to both Europa League and Copa Del Rey finals, falling at the final hurdle in both to Atletico Madrid and Barcelona respectively, with the 38 games played between the beginning of 2012 and the end of the season finally catching up with their high-tempo game.
Fast forward 12 months and all is not so hunky dory down in the Basque territory, with their season all but over in any sense of success by the time 2013 came to pass.
With their league season starting so badly, leaving them looking more at a relegation battle than a challenge for European places, Athletic were embarrassingly dumped out of the Copa Del Rey by Segunda side Eibar, and failed to progress past the group stage in the Europa League, with only five points garnered from a group containing Lyon, Sparta Prague and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona.
It was a difficult summer for Los Leones, as the unfortunate sideshow that comes with being a surprise underdog arrived in full force.
When a smaller side punches above their weight, the big clubs will circle around like vultures, taking the decent meat from the carcass before any others have a chance.
Two players in particular came under the microscope of Europe’s elite, with Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente heavily in demand.
There is a beauty that people love about Athletic, with their heavily guarded Basque heritage so very important to them that it builds an incredible bond between fans, players and community.
The downside became apparent however in the summer, as Llorente and Martinez proved flattered by the opportunity of breaking beyond the glass ceiling that exists around San Mames.
The fans turned against the pair, labelling them as traitors for inviting a move away, with the idea of a better career than that offered in Bilbao flying completely over their heads.
Protests were held at the club’s training ground, with Martinez fortunate enough to have Bayern Munich willing to shell out the necessary €40million for his services, while nobody was so keen to do the same with Fernando Llorente.
Transfer money is not such an importance to Athletic given their Basque only policy, so President Josu Urrutia was willing to play hardball, believing that keeping Llorente for another year would be far more beneficial than taking any such transfer fee.
He did not reckon with the fans ire, however, as they continued their campaign against the burly forward, forcing him to train away from the first team, only brought into first team affairs when they desperately needed a goal (which has been often).
Aritz Aduriz has done a fine job as his replacement leading the line with 12 strikes this season, but the impact of the now Juventus-bound Llorente around the club has clearly hampered other players who have had very below-par seasons.
Iker Muniain had become one of the hottest young prospects in Europe following his displays last season, but has found the net just once this campaign from his attacking position, looking a pale shadow of the player that tormented the likes of Manchester United and Schalke last season.
Andoni Iraola, Oscar De Marcos, Ander Herrera and even goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz have also failed to hit the heights of last year, as Athletic’s final season at San Mames has seen the place become less of a fortress as their season became over before it even began.
They still look an impressive team at times, as they tend to control possession on a general basis, but there is no killer instinct anymore and the gaps left by their high-pressing game have not been as adequately dealt with without Martinez there to mop up.
Six defeats have been accumulated at San Mames, with even Real Zaragoza claiming victory there, while Real Betis, Real Madrid and Barcelona have all netted five times against Athletic, with Espanyol and Atletico also helping themselves to a four-goal-haul.
These defeats have contributed to a goals against column of 51, and a goal difference of -19, both the third worst in the division, with only Deportivo La Coruna and Mallorca boasting worse records and both of them currently occupying the relegation zone.
With Marcelo Bielsa also at loggerheads with the club’s board and close to walking out prior to the season opener, it’s been an unhappy past nine months for the beleaguered Basque club, made even more painful by neighbours Real Sociedad pushing for a Champions League spot.
With eight points now separating them from the relegation zone, the ultimate punishment for a disappointing year seems unlikely with clubs below them looking incapable of putting together enough victories to really trouble them.
They merely now need to steer themselves safely through the remainder of this campaign and hope next year brings a fresh start.
Llorente will be plying his trade in Turin by then and they will be settled into their new home of San Mames Barria following 100 years at San Mames.
Los Leones ever loyal fans will have to hope this new era brings a more enjoyable start than the end of the old.
Tags: Athletic Bilbao, Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniain, Javi Martinez, Marcelo Bielsa, San Mames