Photo courtesy of Jon Gonzalo Torróntegui

The headlines emanating from Bilbao have had little to do with Athletic’s white-hot form, as the rumors swirling around Fernando Llorente’s future destination have blanketed this historic club.  Tottenham Hotspur has been the main culprit of the Llorente saga, originally offering €30 million, but after Athletic rejected the bid, they upped the ante to an astronomical €38.5 million, which Athletic president Fernando García Macua dismissed yet again.

While Tottenham continues to press on for the striker they desire elsewhere (€29 million for Giuseppe Rossi rejected, €27 million for Andy Carroll rejected, a supposed €45 million for Sergio Kun Agüero supposedly rejected, and a last-ditch €20 million bid for Diego Forlán on the table), Llorente has not let the hearsay affect his performances on the pitch as Athletic has risen to sixth place in La Liga with a chance to fortify this position on Sunday against Atlético Madrid.

With Sevilla only able to muster a draw against Deportivo La Coruña on Saturday night, Athletic had an opportunity to move five points clear of both Sevilla and Atlético Madrid for sixth with a win against the Atleti.

Joaquín Caparrós has been the steadying influence for Athletic in these more successful yet turbulent times, and with the constant barrage of stories concerning Llorente’s theoretical transfer, he has remained steadfast about his star striker staying in Bilbao.  Speaking about this subject to AS, his frustrations have nearly bubbled up to the surface:

“How would they like it if we were constantly saying that Xabi Alonso or Cristiano Ronaldo were going to sign for Milan?  The president has said plenty of times that Llorente is an Athletic player, and we have a project here with him.”

Caparrós has always been underrated as a manager, and the players he has managed over the years would say the same thing.  The most unpretentious and unassuming man that one will ever come across in the managing ranks was the manager when Villarreal rose to La Liga for only the second time in their history, and when he left, Villarreal became a mainstay in the Primera División, eventually morphing into a perennial European tournament club.

After lifting Villarreal to the first division, he left to join Sevilla, who was then in the Segunda División.  He could not resist managing the club that he grew up watching from his hometown of Utrera, a mere thirty kilometers away from Sevilla.  Following the lineage of legendary Sevilla managers, such as Miguel Muñoz, Carlos Bilardo, Luís Aragonés, and José Antonio Camacho, he immediately pushed Sevilla back into La Liga in 2001.  With his partnership with new owner José María del Nido, they transformed a mid-table team into a perpetual European club.  Shrewd signings, shrewd sellings, and a simple team philosophy of a high-pressure defense and an organized attack symbolized Sevilla, and Caparrós brought these same characteristics when he accepted the manager’s job at Athletic Club in 2007.

All Caparrós has done since anchoring in Bilbao includes their first Copa del Rey final since 1985, their first European competition since 2004, and an eighth-place finish last season, Athletic’s best since the 2003-04 season.

With all the sexier European football clubs wrangling and yearning for Fernando Llorente, Llorente remains committed to the Athletic cause, and the main reason is the leadership and man-managing skills of one Joaquín Caparrós.

If Athletic Bilbao evokes the notion of stability in the past few years, Atlético Madrid masochistically remains in a constant condition of turmoil.  Atlético can aptly be described as bipolar, and this latest stretch since the beginning of the new year would fall in the more depressive state of mind.  Only two points behind Valencia for the final Champions League spot prior to the winter intermission, one win in seven in all competitions has seen los colchoneros meekly knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Real Madrid and has dropped them a chasmic ten points behind Valencia for fourth.

Whereas Athletic have only had to deal with the Llorente transfer gossip, Atlético have had to handle a myriad of internal problems, not only with the potential departures of Agüero and Forlán but the tenuous nature of Quique Sánchez Flores stay as manager and the purported disharmony inside the dressing room.  What cures most ills for a football club is winning, and despite the troubles abounding for los rojiblancos, a win at home over Bilbao would regain sixth place while somewhat keeping pace with Valencia and Espanyol for Champions League football.

Atlético received an extra and necessary boost prior to their match with Athletic when Quique Sánchez Flores was able to pen Sergio Agüero into his starting eleven after Agüero suffered a muscle tear in his left leg against Real Madrid in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal two and a half weeks ago.  Atlético’s paltry returns have existed since the end of December, where they have scored more than one goal in only one of their last nine matches in all competitions, but without Agüero for the past two to three weeks, scoring has become a painful chore.  The chances they have created have dwindled to a new low when Atlético did not record a shot on goal against Sporting Gijón last weekend until the final minute of injury time, when Iván Cuéllar brilliantly tipped over Juan Valera’s header to preserve the 1-0 win for struggling Sporting.

With Agüero available against Athletic, Atlético’s attack instantly became more fluid, and with Athletic opening up their play from the first whistle, it was amazing that only one goal was scored in the first half between the two teams.  Forlán had a couple of strikes coolly saved by Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz, Agüero split the Athletic central defense several times and missed an unmolested header at the left back post from Tomáš Ujfaluši’s right-wing cross, and José Antonio Reyes, the Atleti’s best player this season, provided killer through balls and threatened Athletic with runs cutting in from both flanks.

Despite all that attacking intent, Atlético could not break through, and they shot themselves in the foot when referee Fernando Teixeira Vitienes sent off Luís Perea for, in his judgment, denying Fernando Llorente an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.  The red card was debatable, but the penalty was not.  David López and Llorente underwent a strong discussion about who would take the penalty, and after Llorente won the argument, he dragged his penalty nearly a yard wide of the left post.

Llorente and Athletic Club did not let the missed penalty affect them negatively, and they took advantage of their man advantage to score the crucial opening goal in the only minute of stoppage time in the first half.  Andoni Iraola’s cross from the right wing was perfectly weighted for Gaizka Toquero in the box, and Toquero volleyed it first-time toward the right far post and past de Gea for the 0-1 lead.  The Atlético marking was criminal as Toquero had yards of space after the Iraola cross to take it down and control it if he wanted, but Toquero wasted no time and slotted it home for his first goal in La Liga this season.

Until Gaizka Toquero scored his second of the match in the 64th minute, Atlético engendered more scoring chances, pinning Athletic in their own half of the pitch even with ten men, but the scoring drought continued, and when Toquero tallied the second goal for Athletic, the spirit in which they played throughout the match slowly dissipated from the Atleti players.

0-2 fulltime, and while the red card changed the complexion of the match, Atlético still had several golden chances to score with a man down and could not capitalize.  For Athletic, Llorente’s missed penalty could have set Athletic behind even though they were a man up at that point, but they kept plugging away, and no player on Athletic personified that heart and desire like Gaizka Toquero, who deservedly scored twice in this match to open his account for the season.

Toquero received the match ball and man of the match honors, and those plaudits were duly warranted, but with Athletic Club playing an expansive style against Atlético, the 18-year-old future of Bilbao, Iker Muniain, thrived under those conditions.  His slight frame is not built for the direct, physical nature of Athletic’s general play, but he has seamlessly adapted into the Athletic approach by toughening up and by willing to engage in physical encounters without being knocked off the ball.  With the match stretched for the majority of the time, Muniain found the scything passes and the pockets of space to lead his teammates into, and he challenged the Atlético defender numerous times with direct runs with the ball.

Athletic Bilbao showed the diversification of their portfolio against Atlético with their adaptation to playing a more indirect, passing football when the situation allows such a system to exist, and Joaquín Caparrós again demonstrated his flexibility to change his tactics rather than bullishly sticking to one mode of play.

Athletic hovered around the Europa League spots last season but finished a mere four points behind Getafe for the final Europa League berth (the Villarreal ascension into the Europa League due to Mallorca entering into administration notwithstanding).  The inconsistency that plagued this team a year ago has lessened this campaign because the stability provided by Caparrós and President Fernando García Macua has given this team time to build a chemistry that is comparable to the instinctive and telepathic communication displayed at FC Barcelona.  Fran Yeste was the only significant departure this past summer, Iker Muniain has matured exponentially both physically and mentally, and the two representatives at the World Cup for Bilbao, Javi Martínez and Fernando Llorente, have grown as leaders of this relatively young Athletic squad both on and off the pitch.

Espanyol, in a similar track to Athletic, recently lost two of their young, talented defenders, Víctor Ruiz and Dídac Vilà, to those European suitors, so keeping their top talents is the only way that Athletic can maintain these top half finishes consistently.  The glory days of the 1930s and the 1980s might not have arrived at Athletic just yet, but if they can somehow fend off the European suitors that desperately want both Muniain and Llorente, they could become a mainstay in the top-six of La Liga for years to come.

Fueras de Juego

– Can the title race really be called off with seventeen rounds remaining?  Another lackluster performance by Real Madrid finally resulted in a loss, as Javier Camuñas’ chip over Iker Casillas ended up as the lone goal in a match that was more about desire and desperation than it was about the football.  Osasuna had only lost once at the Estadio Reyno Navarra all season in La Liga, and the thick and heavy atmosphere of the stadium troubles any team that visits Pamplona.  Los merengues now trail Barcelona by seven points, an enormous gulf considering that the blaugrana have dropped only five points in twenty-one matches this season.  Emmanuel Adebayor, the No. 9 that José Mourinho desired for so long, came in with about half an hour left and provided little as Real might have to look to the Copa del Rey or the UEFA Champions League if they want any silverware before the end of the campaign.

The moral of this story: if your team is leading late in the match, and the opposition is pelting your team’s half of the pitch with every ounce they have, tactical and professional fouls can work to slow them down, but the best remedy to break the game up is to have the ball boys and girls throw extra balls on the field during the run of play.  Osasuna’s minors did that twice and unsurprisingly at important times.  Like Jeffrey Maier, whose fan interference was key in the New York Yankees run to the World Series championship in 1996, these kids will be lauded by the Osasuna fans as much as Javier Camuñas for scoring the only goal.

– FC Barcelona looked underwhelming for once but still achieved a 0-3 road victory at the Estadio José Rico Pérez against Hércules.  The side from Alicante tends to bring about Barcelona’s worst play, and if Hércules could have somehow pulled off another shocker, they would have notched their fourth straight victory over Barça, which had not been achieved since 1965 when Atlético Madrid pulled off that feat.

– Deportivo La Coruña has only scored more than two goals three times in all competitions this season, so when Sevilla goalkeeper Andrés Palop was sent off for an intentional handball, and Lassad Nouioui scored a brace to lead the Andalucians 2-0 with twenty-seven minutes remaining, the odds of Sevilla storming back with three unanswered goals was highly unlikely.  Welcome to the world of Miguel Ángel Lotina.  Sevilla scored their three in a short sixteen minutes with a man down to take the 2-3 lead, but as time neared the ninety-minute mark, Laure equalized for Depor in one of the most controversial moments of the season.

The linesman clearly raised his flag because he felt Laure was offside when he knocked his half-volley past Javi Varas, but referee Miguel Ángel Ayza Gámez waved play on, and the replay backed up Ayza Gámez’s overrule of his assistant.  The Sevilla players were incensed, to put it mildly, and the whole team promptly surrounded both the linesman and the referee in one of the uglier scenes in Spanish football this season.  Luckily, for both Depor and the refereeing crew, the match was at El Riazor in A Coruña.  If this had happened at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, with the images of Iker Casillas being pelted by a bottle still fresh in the mind, all hell might have broken loose.

– The best display of football happened at the Estadi Cornellà El-Prat, where Villarreal escaped with a narrow 0-1 victory because of the blistering power and accuracy of Giuseppe Rossi’s shot, which beat Carlos Kameni at his left near post with nearly no angle in which to shoot, surely a top-five candidate for goal of the season.  The big question for Espanyol coming into the match was how they would replace the losses of Víctor Ruíz and Dídac Vilà to Napoli and AC Milan respectively.

Jordi Amat, the 18-year-old central defender from the Espanyol cantera, played and emitted an aura of a veteran, assuredly commencing build-up play from the back even with pressure on him and getting physical with his man when necessary.  While Espanyol lost, a draw would have been the fairer result, as Espanyol controlled possession and the flow of play throughout the match, and los periquitos look well equipped to stay in the auspices of the European places for the rest of the season.

What the match also showed is that Villarreal can win when they have to play on the counter-attack and rely on their defense and organization.  A 0-1 lead away from home was not usually a lead that the Yellow Submarine could hold too often, but against a quality club who had won every match but one at home in La Liga all season, Villarreal passed another difficult test in their quest for a top-three finish.