What you need to know:
They’ve played some of the best football this season but it increasingly looks likely that Bilbao will lose some their star players. It has happened to Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal in recent years
For neutrals, next Wednesday’s all-Spanish Europa Cup final will be a reward for meticulous planning. Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao are teams constantly threatened by the prowling eyes of Europe’s rich clubs. Nearly every summer, they live in fear of losing their best players. Their position is not helped by financial problems afflicting both teams.
Marcelo Bielsa’s project at San Mames has been nothing short of remarkable. The football-mad Argentine’s innovative ways have transformed Bilbao into one of the most easy-on-the-eye units in European football. They are not a poor man’s Barcelona. Los Leones, as Bilbao are known (The Lions) are more than that.
In purely league terms, progress has not been achieved. Last season, the club finished 6th on 58 points. This year, they occupy 7th on 49 points. They will not match last season’s haul. The Champions League remains an ambition. Indeed the Champions League should be more than an ambition. It should be a target. The problem, however, is that Bilbao will find it very hard to retain their best players once the transfer window shuts at the end of August.
Fernando Llorente, the best striker of his ilk in the game, is rumoured to be a target of both Barca and Real. The Premiership’s leading clubs are also casting covetous eyes. I will be very surprised to see him start the 2012-13 season as a Bilbao player. Midfielders Oscar de Marcos, the exciting Iker Muniain and versatile Javi Martinez are on the radar of many scouts.
The club will naturally do their best to try to convince them to stay. If or when they fail, the management will seek to attract the highest figures to maintain or rebuild the philosophy.
The ideal scenario would have been Bilbao holding onto their best. But the reality is that it just won’t happen. Los Leones can’t match the wages Llorente would command at a bigger club. Valencia couldn’t keep Villa. Atletico couldn’t keep Fernando Torres. Athletic won’t keep Llorente.
Isn’t it about time Kaka thought through his future at Madrid? He is 30 and sitting on the fringes at the Bernabeu. The team have won a league without him. When they were losing against Bayern, he was scarcely considered. It’s about time.