Who Is Athletic Bilbao? Profiling Panathinaikos' Europa League Opponents

Who Is Athletic Bilbao? Profiling Panathinaikos' Europa League Opponents
 

Panathinaikos were certainly the unluckiest of the Greek sides remaining in the Europa League Playoffs. The Prasini were drawn against Spanish powerhouse Athletic Bilbao in what will be an extremely difficult match-up with a spot in the Group Stage up for grabs.

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BACKGROUND

Barcelona and Real Madrid are undoubtedly the two biggest clubs in Spain and many would say in the world as well. After that, there is a secondary group of Spanish teams that are amongst the most successful in the country. Panathinaikos’ opponents in the Europa League Playoffs, Athletic Bilbao, fall into that latter category.

The Basque club are steeped in history having won the league title in Spain on eight occasions along with 23 Copa del Rey trophies. The  Rojiblancos were founded in 1898 and have also come close to winning the UEFA Cup/Europa League on two occasions, losing finals in 1976/77 and most recently in 2010/11.

The only Spanish club besides Barca and Real never to have been relegated, Bilbao are currently transitioning to a new era. Manager Ernesto Valverde has made the big switch to Barcelona and in his place is former Athletic Bilbao B boss Jose Angel Ziganda. 

Due to the club’s historic policy of signing only Basque players, there are seasons like the current one where the roster stays virtually the same. Whether that will mean a settled and cohesive side or one that lacks the freshness and vitality of new signings this season remains to be seen. Regardless of the lack of new recruits, this is still a formidable side with loads of experience in Europe. 

Stadium: Estadio San Mames (Capacity: 53,259)

Titles: 8 La Liga Titles, 23 Spanish Cups, 2 Spanish Supercups

Manager: Jose Angel Ziganda

The 50-year-old manager hails from the Basque region and has spent the majority of his playing and coaching career in that area of Spain save for a season spent coaching Xerez from Andalusia. Ziganda spent seven years as a striker for Bilbao during his playing days and was the man tabbed with succeeding Valverde at the helm. This was a sort of promotion for the man capped twice by Spain as he had been coaching Athletic Club B, the club’s reserve side for the last six years. He is expected to continue in the team’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation and supporters will be hoping that this appointment from within will provide continuity going forward. 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Even at 37 years old, Aritz Aduriz remains the club’s most important player. The evergreen striker has played for Bilbao in eight seasons total over two different stints having scored 145 goals in 319 matches. He has shown no signs of slowing down with 24 goals last season in all competitions and a whopping 86 goals over his last three campaigns. 

In addition to Aduriz, midfielder Raul Garcia is a key player in midfield. The 31-year-old brings his vast experience (541 career matches) and goalscoring ability in the center of the park to Bilbao and is a vital part of this side.

Iker Muniain enters his 9th season at the club and the 24-year-old winger is still a valuable piece in the side even if his development hasn’t quite yet live up to the hype of being tabbed ‘the Spanish Messi. 

Another young prospect is forward Inaki Williams while the  defense is marshalled by by French center-back Aymeric Laporte, who is eligible to play for Bilbao as he joined the club at a young age. 

LAST SEASON RECAP

Bilbao finished 7th in La Liga season with a 19-6-13 (W-D-L) record. In Europa League play, the club crashed out in the Round of 32 after a shock defeat at the hands of APOEL. In the Copa del Rey, Barcelona was too much for the Basques as they came through with a 4-3 aggregate win in the Round of 16. 

THIS YEAR IN EUROPE

Athletic needed to defeat Dinamo Bucharest in the previous round to advance to the next stage of Europa League qualifiers. After a 1-1 draw in Romania, the team sealed passage to the Playoffs with a comfortable 3-0 second leg victory in Bilbao.

PRIOR HISTORY VERSUS GREEK TEAMS

Athletic Bilbao have come up against Greek opponents on two previous occasions. They previously played Panathinaikos nearly 50 years ago. It was back in the 1968/69 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (in some ways the predecessor to the UEFA Cup) when Bilbao came through the two-legged tie against the Prasini with a 1-0 aggregate win.

In the 1988/89 season, AEK faced off against the Spanish club and things looked good after a 1-0 victory in Athens. However, the return leg saw Bilbao flip the tie on its head and eliminate the Kitrinomavri after a 2-0 home victory.
 

 
by George Tsitsonis
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