With La Liga making its return in just a few days, GiveMeSport will be taking a look at all 20 of its competitors, from the title challengers to the new boys and everyone in between. Next we will be assessing Athletic Bilbao’s chances of repeating their impressive fourth-place finish.
Athletic vastly improved on a disappointing 12th-place finish in 2013 by qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 1998 thanks to the exploits of Aritz Aduriz and Markel Susaeta in particular.
In: Borja Viguera
Out: Unai Albizua (loan), Borja Ekiza, Raul Fernandez, Ander Herrera, Enric Saborit (loan)
Things have been quiet at San Mamés this summer, with Athletic’s presence in the transfer market being near non-existent.
So far Borja Viguera is the only new the arrival, coming in from Segunda club Alaves. Any new players breaking into the first team may need to be promoted from the youth side.
Ander Herrera was a big loss for Athletic, but the bigger problem is finding an adequate replacement due to their stringent recruiting rules. Such a small pool of players from which to pick from means signing a quality player isn’t always guaranteed.
Key player: Aritz Aduriz
The 33-year-old has evolved into the consistent goalscorer Athletic desperately needed after the departure of Fernando Llorente. With 18 goals in 36 league games, he fired the club into the Champions League and will need to repeat his effort this season if they are to stay there.
One to watch: Unai Lopez
The 18-year-old featured on the bench during the first leg of Athletic's CL playoff tie against Napoli and may get his opportunity in the starting XI before too long. Lopez is seen as a long-term replacement for Herrera, but may get his chance sooner.
Getxo XI 0 – 4 Athletic Bilbao
Al-Hilal 0 – 3 Athletic Bilbao
Paderborn 1 – 2 Athletic Bilbao
Werder Bremen 2 – 2 Athletic Bilbao
Toulouse 2 – 0 Athletic Bilbao
Osasuna 3 – 1 Athletic Bilbao
Borussia Monchengladbach 1 – 3 Athletic Bilbao
Olympiakos 0 – 0 Athletic Bilbao
Will they get into the top four?
Much of their hopes for the La Liga season are dependent on how far they go in the Champions League. They drew their first leg against Napoli, with an away goal giving them hope of reaching the group stages.
The absence of European football helped them greatly last season and they may be hindered this year, especially if they drop into the Europa League, which will mean more games.
A lack of transfer activity and the loss of Herrera may reduce their chances of claiming a second consecutive top-four finish.
Regardless of Herrera’s departure, Athletic still have a strong starting XI. It is the strength of their squad that is questionable and could potentially be exposed when playing European football and La Liga matches just a few days apart.
It been 16 years since Athletic Bilbao were last in Europe’s premier competition and striking the balance will be difficult. And while the teams around them have rebuilt and improved, Bilbao have stagnated. And that could see them left behind by their rivals.