After managing a highly commendable fifth placed finish in La Liga last season, Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic will be hoping to go one step further this season and finish in the top four.
Athletic Club are one of four Basque clubs in La Liga (Alaves, Eibar and Real Sociedad are the other three). Unlike the other three, Athletic appear to have built up some level of consistency in recent seasons, finishing in the European places in each of the past three seasons.
By finishing in fifth last season, the Basque side will enter the Europa League group stage along with Celta in a competition which they reached the quarter-final stage of last season. They lost that tie on penalties to eventual winners Sevilla.
Despite a slow start to the 2015/16 season, Los Leones picked up the pace in the second half of the season to eventually overtake Celta to that fifth spot in the table. They also managed their first cup success in 31 years, beating Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Supercopa final at the start of the season.
Ahead of the new season, there’s been next to no transfer activity involving Athletic. Of course, their club policy about only signing players native to the Basque region makes this more of a challenge. Long-serving defensive midfielder Carlos Gurpegui retired at the end of last season, while Ibai Gomez was signed by newly-promoted Alaves on a free transfer.
As of yet, there have been no incomings for the club, with the new season less than three weeks away at the time of writing. However, one huge bonus is that Aymeric Laporte will stay with the club for the foreseeable future. Despite advances from Manchester City, Laporte signed a new deal at the end of June, much to the delight of Athletic fans.
Last season, there was one man who really made an impact. At 35 years of age, Aritz Aduriz possessed the quality of a top quality striker at his peak when he was in front of goal, scoring an incredible 36 goals and setting up another nine in all competitions.
This came in 49 starts, and while Athletic didn’t have much of an impact in competitions last season, Aduriz was head and shoulders above any other player in terms of clinical finishing, with Inaki Williams the next highest-scoring player on 13 goals.
Despite being one of the most successful clubs in Spain (and being one of just three teams to never be relegated from the Spanish top flight), it’s not all been rosy for Athletic fans since the turn of the century.
The early 2000s saw a few mid-table finishes before multiple managerial changes between 2005 and 2007, which was almost coupled with the club’s first-ever relegation. They’ve since bounced back and, thanks mainly to Ernesto Valverde, are a team constantly in touching distance of the top four.
Pre-season, while competitive and generally more tied down to fitness ahead of results, has ended in four draws from four games for Athletic. They have four more games before the start of the season, including one against Borussia Dortmund.
Two of the first five games of the season are against Barcelona and Valencia, both of which come at home. Their first three away games are at Sporting, Granada and Deportivo, all of whom finished around the relegation zone last season. As not much has changed squad-wise, their line-up is expected to look practically identical to last season:
With Villarreal seemingly having the core of their squad torn apart, Athletic have a very good chance of making the top four this season. Sevilla and Valencia may also prove a challenge domestically, despite both being in the same situation as Villarreal. My prediction in La Liga for Athletic is a fourth place finish and Champions League football for the 2017/18 season.
In European competition, there’ll be a much tougher challenge. However, with Aduriz and co. performing above expectations as they did last season, Athletic could go very far once again. For me, it’ll be another quarter-final exit this time around.
The Copa del Rey is the final competition Athletic have a chance of securing silverware in. In the last two seasons, they’ve lost out to Barcelona, but will fancy themselves in a competition they have been highly successful in over the course of their history. My prediction is a semi-final place, although they could very well reach a second final in three years.