17 September 2013

Away from La Catedral, Bilbao's fans find a new altar to worship upon

My Column for the Irish Examiner

Joseph Sexton
Up in the Bilbao, Monday marked a historic night for one of the country's most iconic clubs. An historic night too for Spanish football, and a prescient one too, in light of the financial abyss the vast majority of the country's professional clubs are teetering over.

It also brought to an end 90 years of glorious history. Last May, Athletic Club played their last ever home game at the fabled San Mamés ground. La Catedral, truly one of the most imposing grounds in Europe.
One of the most welcoming too, though. Unless you're for Real Madrid, or Barcelona. Or, of course, their fiercest rivals, Real Sociedad at whose ground Athletic played their opening home fixture this term ahead of Monday’s grand opening.
Talk to any Manchester United supporter who made the trek for their recent Europa League undressing against Athletic's thrilling young side, and they'll answer you wide-eyed. Newcastle fans too, as Phil Ball recounts in his magisterial book Morbo. That day in 1994 was Ball's first visit to the ground, one which the author describes as 'unlike anything I have ever experienced before, or since.' This was echoed by the hordes of Geordie supporters he spoke to. Expecting the usual welcome reserved for travelling English supporters they were  bowled over by the warmth and kindness showered upon them.
One gang, who'd travelled through France suffered a car malfunction. A trip to the local mechanics confirmed the worst- the entire exhaust needed replacing. But the garage owner simply refused to take any payment for the work, and more still, invited the group out for and paid for several rounds of beer.
'They just won't let you pay, man!', one of the Geordie faithful recalled with awe.
But they've not moved too far. The new ground is located adjacent to the old one. And if Monday night’s clash with Celta Vigo is anything to go by, the atmosphere generated at the grand old temple hasn't diminished for the move.
Both sides went into this one in good form, Celta, under Luis Enrique, were desperately unfortunate not to maintain their 100% record a fortnight against Granada. “If we keep playing like we did today, we'll win a lot more than we lose”, was their manager's verdict after Granada stole a point.
Athletic are under the guidance of Ernesto Valverde. Having almost dragged Valencia back from the brink to a Champions League place after taking charge midway through last season, he was sounded out after Tito Vilanova stepped aside at Barcelona. But having committed himself the Bilbao post, the former Espanyol boss stayed true to his word.
The match itself was a ding-dong affair that did the occasion justice. Charles had been a major doubt for Celta, but he opened the scoring on 13 minutes after Rafinha robbed the ball on the halfway line. Just four minutes later, the former Liverpool man Mikel San José prodded home the equaliser from a free kick, aided by a fortunate bounce of Hugo Mallo. On the hour mark Andoni Iraola put the hosts in front and the stadium errupted in celebration.
The summer signing Benat extended that lead as the game entered the final quarter, showing some neat footwork after being played in by a simple ball which exploited the visitors' high defensive line. And though the 17 year old Santi Mina cut the deficit with ten minutes left, the hosts held on to move up to fifth, just a point behind Real Madrid.
“It could have finished differently”, said Luis Enrique post-game. “But I can't complain too much. We know we're on he right path and we have time on our side. It was a spectacular game, in a spectacular setting”
“This game had it all”, Began Valverde. “We were made to suffer, but we got there in the end. Man of the match Benat concurred and added that “it was important to crown the occasion with a win, and fortunately I was able to tuck away my goal”.
It was only the opening night. No doubt many more grand memories will be forged on this marvellous new field.
As the world and his mother will be aware, Carlo Ancelotti opted to start Gareth Bale in Real's visit to newly-promoted Villarreal. The Welshman, understandably, looked a little short on the levels of fitness and understanding with his team-mates that he might have had had the record-breaking transfer been concluded sooner.
But among the misplaced passes and ballooned crosses their was a determination which his scrambled equaliser encapsulated. Having departed around the hour mark, it was left to Cristiano Ronaldo to salvage a point for the visitors. Both sides now have 10 points from 12 available, and having continued their best-ever start to a top-flight campaign, the home teams goal of retaining their elite status is progressing far better than anyone could have anticipated. 
Last autumn, Sevilla and Barcelona produced one of the games of the season when the Catalans fought back from two goals down to steal victory at the Sánchez Pizjuan. The emphatic nature of their comeback that night meant the final result was anything but unjust.
Here at the Camp Nou, fortune certainly smiled upon them. Leading through a Dani Alves strike, the visitors were incensed as Ivan Rakitic's equaliser was disallowed before Leo Messi doubled Barca's lead with a quarter hour left.
And yet five minutes later Rakitic struck again, legitimately too. Then, in the final minute, from a home corner, Sevilla broke to equalise when Coke volleyed home. But there was still enough time left for the much-maligned Alexis Sánchez to settle matters at the death, latching on after Beto could only a parry a Leo Messi shot. Tata Martino's reign is certainly leaving supporters on the edge of their seats.
They wanted Unai Emery out, and a season later, they got the man they wanted, Miroslav Djukic. But not many Valencia fans will be smiling after their side suffered a third straight defeat under the Serb as they were comprehensively defeated as Betis claimed their first win of the new campaign. 
Another side with the same record after four matches is Rayo Vallecano. Having defied all expectation the last three campaigns, this might be one too far for the Madrid side. Losing three quarters of your squad (once again) will do that. If their defeat to Levante was a staggering injustice, there was little solace to be had here. Their 5-0 defeat to Málaga, aided by a hat-trick from deadline signing Mounir El Hamdaoui, was their second straight manita on their travels, leaving Paco Jémez and has side with work to do if they're to beat the drop this term.


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