One of the most intense and exciting games in world football takes place tonight in Spain. The Basque derby between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad. Tom Wilde (@TWilde91) takes a look at the upcoming game and the last time it will be played at the San Mames stadium, and potentially the last time for Bielsa as well.
By Tom Wilde – @TWilde91
This game is always special for people from the region. Two sides, from Bilbao and San Sebastian, separated by little under 100km, representing different regions of the Basque country; Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa. When these two meet, it is always special.
The game tonight is more important than usual though, as it is going to be the final ever derby to be played at Athletic’s San Mames stadium. They’ll relocate to the 55,500 seater “Nuevo San Mames” from the start of next season. The ever-passionate fans of Athletic will want a victory in the farewell match to the stadium that has homed them for a century; Spain’s oldest stadium.
A match of such magnitude hasn’t come at a great time for Athletic, they have had an incredibly poor season in comparison to last seasons campaign. Their incredible Europa League run will be fondly remembered. With their impressive attacking displays against Manchester United, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon gaining them many admirers around Europe. Their entertainment value last year was second to none; Bielsa’s men were a breath of fresh air last season.
They went on to lose both the Europa League final and Spanish Cup final though. Having given so much, to lose both finals really hurt the players. The manager, Marcelo Bielsa, was especially disappointed. It seems that they weren’t able to recover coming into the current campaign.
Bielsa is held in high regard by the Bilbao faithful. Not least for what he managed to achieve last season. The lovable mad man has many fans in the world of football, and they’ll all be hoping he can provide one last hurrah for Athletic tonight as he’ll almost certainly be moving on to pastures new come the end of the season.
It has been well known for a while now that Bielsa and the players are divided. He has lost the dressing room. His disputes with both the club and in particular Fernando Llorente at the start of the season laid the foundations for this very poor season.
This season has seen their performances drop considerably, only winning 5 from 12 at home in la Liga, where they are usually tough to beat. Their last home outing was a woeful 4-0 loss to Espanyol. Even worse is their away record, picking up only two wins on the road. They lie in 15th place in La Primera, just six clear of the relegation spots.
In stark contrast it has been a fantastic season so far for tonight’s opponents. La Real come into this game in sixth place and chasing European spots. Mexican Carlos Vela has been on fantastic form and will be the one Athletic’s defence should be wary of tonight. He and Chory Castro have been a formidable attacking partnership this season. With Antoine Griezmann and Ruben Pardo in fine form too. Captain Xabi Prieto is having one of his best seasons in midfield for the still strangely unpopular Philippe Montanier’s side, even netting a hat trick at the Bernabeu last month.
In footballing terms then, it’s the away side that come into this fixture in the better form, and they’ll be confident of being able to get a result. If Athletic play as they have been this season then they will definitely be there for the taking.
Fans of the club though, and the romantic football fans out there, will be hoping that last season’s Athletic will turn up tonight, for one last ‘swan song’ for both Marcelo Bielsa, and one of Spain’s great stadiums. Hopefully Athletic can give a fond farewell to La Catedral.
Will Spanish football miss Bielsa or The San Mames stadium more? Will you be watching tonight? Why don’t you let us know what you think. Leave a comment or tweet @TWilde91 directly.