Bish's Briefs - Basque brawn of Bilbao benefits Barca
Published: 19 Jan 2010 - 09:27:44
There is an old Basque saying that reads "Aberats izatea baino, izen ona hobe" (It's better to have a good reputation than to be rich).
On Saturday night at San Mames, as the world's most expensive fleet of footballers rolled into town, one of the world's proudest clubs enhanced their admirable standing in the game.
Fernando Llorente's third minute strike was enough, only just, to see the totem of Basque identity, Athletic Bilbao, defeat their most loathed rivals, Real Madrid.
They were in no small part, hugely grateful to goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz, who gave the performance of a lifetime to shut-out 'Los Galaticos' as Joaquin Caparros's team decided to baton down the hatches for the remaining 87 minutes following Llorente's early goal.
Bilbao are a club like no other. Founded in 1898 they have kept intact a 'Basque-only' policy. Despite only being able to assemble a squad from a region with a population of around three million people they are the third most successful club in Spanish history with eight League titles and 23 Spanish Cups to their name.
In the all-time Spanish League table they find themselves again third - only to, you guessed it, Barcelona an Real Madrid.
As with Spain's big two, they are the only other side to have never been relegated from Spain's Primera division, although they came perilously close in 2006-07 when they finished 17th - one place and one point from relegation.
Despite recently struggling for success - they have not won a major trophy since achieving the Spanish League and Cup double in 1984 - their history is rich.
Their former striker Telmo Zarra has more records than the Rolling Stones including being La Ligas' leading all-time scorer with 252 goals and the man who scored the most goals in a single season when he hit 38 goals in just 30 games in 1950-51.
On the 79th anniversary of inflicting Real Madrid's heaviest ever defeat at the Bernabeu (6-0 in January 1931) they added a further stitch to their illustrious tapestry and re-ignited memories of former glories when they toppled Real on a regular basis.
The game's globalisation has punctured Bilbao's prowess. Their Catalan equivalents, Barcelona, retain their identity by bringing locals through their ranks - the current team can boast Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Xavi and Sergio Busquets, but they are complemented by the Brazilian brilliance of Dani Alves, the Ivorian industry of Yaya Toure, the Swede sophistication of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Argentine artistry of Lionel Messi.
They further supplement their side with the integration of players from Spain's other regions such as Andres Iniesta and Pedro.
This is not an option for Bilbao whose win on Saturday was of huge benefit to Barcelona - here two clubs who share a loathing for Real Madrid, the club of King Carlos II and of former Dictator General Franco, the club that is seen to represent all that is good about Spain, the Spain that neither region wants anything to do with.
Bilbao's brawn was enough to see off a Madrid side who could not have done much more. Time and time again they were repelled by an inspired Iraizoz, who denied nearly every player in white.
Cristiano Ronaldo was a dominant figure throughout and went close on numerous occasions, as did Kaka, looking some way towards finding his form for Madrid.
It was a night when the value of Gonzalo Higuain, sidelined for at least three weeks, was realised by Manuel Pellegrini, who saw Karim Benzema, the man he paid £30m for in the summer, squander numerous chances to draw his side level. Pellegrini will however have been suitably impressed by Benzema;s efforts, for which he can not be faulted, as he tries to win back his place in the team and justify that weighty price tag.
Over at the Camp Nou, Barcelona kicked off minutes after Madrid's defeat with a spring in their step, looking to exact sought revenge on a Sevilla side that knocked them out of a competition for the first time since Pep Guardiola took charge in 2008, following their triumph on away goals in the Copa del Rey the previous Wednesday. They held out until just after half-time before finally succumbing to irrepressible waves of Barca pressure.
It was Barca at their best - options at every angle, one and two touch passing, body swerves and slalom dribbles as they swept through Sevilla to run out 4-0 winners.
It was Barca's most impressive 45 minutes of the season and sent a stark warning 300 miles west to Madrid, of what they must overcome if Florentino Perez is to see tangible reward for his investment. The gap at the top of La Liga now stands at five points - the widest it has been this season.
Whilst such glories are a pipedream for Bilbao under their restrictive recruitment policy, their future looks much brighter than in years.
They find themselves seventh in La Liga, with half-an-eye on a place in next season Champions League qualifiers, which has been blown wide open as a result of Sevilla's recent stutter. They are also in the Last 32 of the Europa League and have, in Iker Muniain, a 17-year old of whom great things are expected.
Muniain became the clubs youngest-ever player aged 16 years, seven months and 11 days when he came on in the Europa League Qualifier v Swiss side Young Boys in June last year. He added a further feather to his cap the following week when he became Athletic's youngest ever scorer, netting a vital goal just two minutes after coming off the bench to take his side through to the next round on away goals.
Since then he has been slowly integrated into the first team, becoming the club's youngest La Liga scorer against Valladolid in November and then returning from injury to score a wonderful solo effort that epitomised his talent - close control, strength, fast feet and composed finishing - in a 2-1 defeat at home to Valencia.
His current contract runs until 2015, by when Bilbao will have ushered in a new era by moving to their new home 'San Mames Barria', away from their current stadium, the cacophonous 'catedral' (named so due to its location next to a church and its standing as the oldest purpose built football stadium still used in Spain) which has housed the club since 1913.
Whether the latest star off their dependent production line will still be there to write the first glories of a new chapter in Athletic's history is open to debate.
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- Having worked in radio, newspapers, magazines, internet and television I hope to now bring my passion for the game to your computer screens with analysis, comment and tongue-in-cheek humour on all things global in the world of football - from Barcelona to Boca and from Blatter to Berlusconi...enjoy!
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