Athletic Bilbao are ready to burst Barcelona's bubble

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Ernesto Valverde has turned things around at Athletic Bilbao and not before time it must be said.

This proud institution's appalling start to the season threatened to end in disaster as elimination from the Champions League coincided with an awful run of results in La Liga.

Stuck down in the lower reaches of the table, it couldn't have been too much longer before Valverde received the dreaded heave-ho.

To his credit, the manager has engineered a well-timed recovery and just two losses since mid-January compare with five in six during the preceding month.

Now proudly eighth in the table, Los Leones are comfortable in the knowledge that it will take a freak run of results to end their association with the Spanish top flight. To that end, Athletic can look forward to another Copa del Rey final date with Barcelona, their third in six years.

Third time lucky

Valverde might well be hoping it will be third time lucky after Athletic were comprehensively undone by the Catalans in the 2009 and 2012 finals.

He certainly has the tools to do the job as both Espanyol and Real Madrid found out during the past seven days.

In Aritz Arduriz, Athletic have a centre-forward of real old school quality. At 34 years of age, this may well be his last chance of silverware, and as he showed against Real when scoring a fabulous winning goal, he will strain every last sinew in his body in order to gain the advantage for his side.

Iker Muniain remains the golden child in these parts but he, like many of his colleagues, had gone missing for a large portion of the campaign. Fortunately for the Basques, his confidence is returning at just the right time, and in readiness for a successful conclusion to the season.

Household name

Aymeric Laporte continues to show why he has a £35 million bounty slapped on him, whilst one player who has everyone excited is young Iñaki Williams.

Just twelve games into his Athletic career and he is fast becoming a household name with the locale.

Although he won't wish to be defined by it, his goal against Torino in the Europa League saw him become the first black player in 117 years of club history to score.

It propelled him into the national consciousness, but his performance against Real will have done more for him than any goals ever will. However headline-grabbing they may be.


In fact, the quality throughout the side is finally beginning to show its true face again.

There is genuine belief that, as we approach the business end, this side can end on a real high note.

The last league defeat, a 2-5 reverse at home, ironically to Barcelona, remains the last loss in the league and there has been a rapid and immeasurable improvement since then.

Barca are already dreaming of another trouble and that's a dangerous game to be playing...

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