Athletic Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde faces the difficult task of improving their squad within the limitations of the 'Basque-only' rule that Los Leones still abide by.
The ruling amplifies the need to keep the best players at the club, so as well as looking to bring player in. As such Valverde will be doing everything in his powers to keep Aymeric Laporte, Iker Munian and Ander Herrera away from the clutches of top European sides.
Athletic have done one piece of early business, bringing in Borja Viguera from Alavés after activating his €1million buy-out clause. The striker, who started his career at arch rivals Real Sociedad, scored an impressive 43 goals in 79 games during his two seasons in Alavés, helping the club out of Segunda División B in his first season, and assisting the club in narrowly avoiding relegation last season, finishing as top goalscorer. Viguera will try and relieve the pressure on Aritz Aduriz, who scored eighteen goals in La Liga, with no one else in the Bilbao squad reaching double figures.
In defence, Bilbao have been strongly linked with Arsenal full-back Nacho Monreal. Monreal was born in Pamplona, and is therefore eligible to play for Bilbao. Despite impressing early on in his Arsenal career, a loss of form and injuries have seen him lose out to Kieran Gibbs for the first-choice left back spot. Mikel Balenziaga is the Bilbao left-back at the moment, and despite being a solid player, Monreal would undoubtedly be an upgrade. Another possibility in defence would be re-signing Fernando Amorabieta, who had a torrid season with Fulham. Having been relegated, Fulham would be happy to conduct a cut-price sale of Amorabieta, a top earner at the club, and the Bilbao academy graduate would provide cover for Laporte, in case of injury.
In midfield, although it will be hard to convince Real Sociedad to sell to their rivals, a move for Rubén Pardo would be a shrewd choice. Born in Logroño, Pardo has already played over 70 games for Sociedad, despite only being 21. The Spain Under-21 midfielder has reportedly been scouted by Liverpool and Manchester United, and it is not difficult to see why. He possesses fantastic attributes for a centre-midfielder, vision, touch and the ability to execute a pass, and would compliment Bilbao's other creative midfielders, Beñat and Ander.
With long-term goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz reaching the twilight of his career at the age of 33, the time has come for the Valverde to consider brining in another keeper. The number one candidate is Stéphane Ruffier, who was born in the heart of French Basque country, Bayonne. Ruffier recently returned to the French national side, deputising for first-choice Hugo Lloris, and would be a sensible option to replace Iraizoz.
It is always intriguing to watch Athletic Bilbao conduct their transfer business. Despite being somewhat handicapped, they are still the most successful Basque side, therefore they are able to hand-pick the best Basque footballers to a certain extent. Often, players who join the club talk of the pride they feel at representing the Basque nation.
So whilst they might have a smaller pool of players to chose from, no other club in world football can match Bilbao when it comes to the pride the players emit upon joining.
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