22 February 2013

Spanish Inquest: Best of Enemies

My column for Eircom SportsHub

Antoine Griezmann has been in exceptional form for Real Sociedad

This weekend’s Basque derby is full of significance. Clashes between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad are always to be savoured, but this one will be the last at Bilbao’s cathedral San Mamés. Come next season they’ll be moving to a new home adjacent to this storied ground.

It also marks Marcelo Bielsa’s 100th game in charge- his longest time at the helm of any club. It’s fair to say matters have been more trying this term, something the Argentine readily conceded to the press pack on Thursday. “In evaluating my work this season, the conclusion is negative”.

It’s a different story up the road in San Sebastian where Phillippe Montanier has lead his side to sixth position. The Frenchman was criticised earlier in the season for his side’s perceived lack of ambition amidst underwhelming results. But of late, it’s their fluid attackers who’ve been drawing the praise.

Clearly, their key man remains the France underage international Antoine Griezmann. Last year, he’d had his head turned and his performances suffered as a result. This season, he’s regained his focus and whether playing in a fixed position or roaming free, he’s been a real nuisance to opposing defences.

It’s not just the prospect of Griezmann that will have had Athletic’s porous backline sweating. Imanol Agirretxe’s chipped in with 5 goals off the bench, and then there’s the former Arsenal man, Carlos Vela.

The Mexican finally seems to have found himself a home after multiple loan moves during his time in London. The penalty he won- and converted- in last week’s 1-1 draw with Levante was his 10th in the league to date.

Vela is another who likes to drift across the attacking line in games in order to elude his markers. His dribbling ability and intelligent link-up play are his principal assets, but this year he’s really grown as a finisher and enjoying getting frequent time on the pitch.

Athletic’s recent form has been wretched. The defence has been a calamity all season, but  further up the field their pressing game- so central last season’s success- had been an abject failure. The frequency of their concession of goalscoring chances stems largely from this. Once the initial press is beaten, their defence has too often been all at sea.

Eyebrows were raised when their stalwart between the sticks, Gorka Iraizoz, was absent from the selection for last weekend’s 1-0 reverse at Málaga. It’s true that he didn’t enjoy the best of times in their 4-0 defeat here against Espanyol, and has been unsure in several other games since the turn of the year.

Bielsa refused to give his thoughts, instead stating that “Gorka is a player with a lot of character. And I’m not one to give up my thoughts in public on selections and line-ups before I tell it to the players themselves”. But youngster Kepa- who described the Athletic goalkeeping shirt as ‘sacred’- look certain to start.

Meanwhile, the whole Fernando Llorente saga continues. Next year, he’ll be leading the line for Juventus. For the time being, it’s hard to see what he has to do to get himself back into Bielsa’s plans.

“Llorente will be available, as will [defender, Fernando] Amorebieta”. The fact that Llorente didn’t train with the first team on Wednesday should confirm another frustrating night on the bench for the Spain striker.

Fortunately for Athletic his stand-in, Aritz Aduriz has been in exceptional form this term, with the former Valencia man contributing 12 goals; their next highest scorer is Mikel San José, the former Liverpool centre back.

Certainly, they can do with all the help they can get in attack. Óscar De Marcos is still a doubt, and Carlos Gurpegui- never much of a goal threat- limped off in the defeat in Málaga. Iker Muniain has been off the boil all season, and may not even make the starting line-up here.

Meanwhile, La Real’s Uruguayan attacker Chory Castro was talking big in Wednesday’s press conference. “I can’t tell you how much I want to win at San Mamés. They’re down at the moment and we have to make sure they don’t get up”

“They’ll want to pick themselves up so it’s up to us to make sure they can’t. If we have the opportunity to stick away two or three goals, then fine... we’ll do just that because that’s our job.”

Big words indeed, but given Athletic’s travails of late one wouldn’t put it past him and his team-mates to make this another excruciating night for the home side.

Original article here on Eircom SportsHub

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