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2016-17 La Liga Team Preview: Athletic Club

Los Leones have the pieces to challenge for a Champions League place

Athletic Bilbao v Sevilla - UEFA Europa League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Athletic Club look to be in good shape entering 2016-17. San Mames will roar with optimism for Los Leones, who have to harbor hopes of returning to the Champions League after the winds of change swept through Seville, Valencia, Vigo and Vila-real. The club famous/notorious for its strict transfer policy kept its core players and young players picked from the renowned Lezama academy continue to develop under the steady hand of Ernesto Valverde. Although Valverde tinkered a bit during preseason, his base 4-2-3-1 - which allowed Aritz Aduriz to flourish and play for Spain at the Euros this summer - nearly got Athletic into the UCL last term. With a couple more wins, the Basque giants stand a good chance of ending 2016-17 in La Liga’s top four.

I spoke with James Etxegorri of Inside Athletic Club to get an expert’s look at Athletic’s keys to success.

“Athletic still have their same manager (4 years into his reign) and kept all their stars,” he said. “There is familiarity and experience in the squad and no real kinks that will have to be worked out. Athletic have stayed firm while most others took a step back. They should definitely challenge for that fourth spot in the league table.”

Those stars include forward Aduriz, center back Aymeric Laporte and winger Inaki Williams, as well as someone Atletico Madrid supporters are quite familiar with, midfielder Raul Garcia. Earlier this summer, Garcia was found to have a rapid heartbeat and was forced to recuperate, causing concern among Athletic and Atleti fans alike.

“Normally these conditions just come out of nowhere and for no reason so there wasn’t a lot of concern about him not being able to play,” Etxegorri said. “After sitting out for about 4 weeks he returned to training and everything has been completely normal since. There is no real worry over anything popping back up.”

A healthy Raul Garcia is one of a few threats Athletic can offer in the attacking third. The aforementioned Aduriz stole most of the headlines in 2015-16 as the 35-year-old put together a stunning 36-goal season, with 20 strikes coming in La Liga. Some believe that Aduriz had a once-in-a-career season but Etxegorri thinks Aduriz could make it a double feature.

”The fact that he did it last year tells me he could again this year,” he said. “It would [be] just as shocking mind you, but still possible. I don’t think he will need to score as much this year because there are other options. Inaki Williams has a lot of experience now and can be a force. He is set for a breakout year. Sabin Merino has also learned a lot and can provide some goals. There are sure to be games when Aduriz will have to pull off something remarkable, but I can’t see the team being as reliant on him this season. Regardless, anything is possible with him.”

Williams, who turned 22 in June, scored gobs of goals for Bilbao Athletic and looks set to become a star this season after he scored eight goals in 25 league appearances last season.

“Inaki has a lot of the little things that work together to create something special,” Etxegorri said. “He is extremely fast, has good ball control, can score in every way imaginable, has a powerful shot, and a nice first touch. All those things make him a headache for defenders. He has looked great on the wing and can also play striker if needed. His biggest traits are his speed and eye for goal. He can beat defenders just by pushing past them and if he has a look at goal he isn’t afraid to put a shot on target. He has confidence and trusts himself and his abilities and that has led to some nice moments. No matter where he plays across the front line he is always a dangerous threat.”

The man tasked with making these pieces a cohesive whole is Valverde, who is the second-longest tenured manager in La Liga behind Diego Simeone. Like Simeone, he once played for the club he coaches, and he has been linked with moves to Barcelona and Real Madrid. Valverde renewed his contract last season but there remains uncertainty as to how much longer he will roam the Lions’ dugout - meaning this season could hold more weight.

“He is entering his fourth year at Athletic which will be the longest he has ever been in charge at a club,” Etxegorri said. “This season he will break the record for most matches coached in Athletic history, so he is already a legend. He could choose to become a Sir Alex Ferguson type of manager and stay for decades or leaves after this year because he thinks ‘it’s time to move on and change things up.’ I don’t really think Valverde has any plans to leave or stay past this year and just takes things a year at a time. Athletic fans certainly want him to stick around for a long time, but that is his decision to make.”