LA LIGA Primera División
ESTADIO CIUDAD DE VALENCIA
SATURDAY 5TH JANUARY 2012
Athletic Bilbao are finding it hard to smile this season and understandably so after the excitement of the previous campaign. Wins over the likes of Manchester United and Sporting saw the club from the Basque country reach the Europa League final as the club attempted to win its first trophy since 1984.
This European run was replicated domestically as the club reached the final of the Copa Del Rey. Unfortunately for Bilbao standing in the way of success were two of its main rivals in La Liga. Barcelona stood in front of Athletic Bilbao in terms of domestic cup success whilst in Bucharest Atletico Madrid posed a real threat in the UEFA Europa League final.
Both finals were lost and the new campaign has seen the team unable to reproduce the form of the previous season. Midfield powerhouse Javi Martinez was sold to Bayern for €40million and there have been claims of squabbles behind the scenes. It is little wonder that many in Bilbao are finding it hard to smile especially when new kids on the block Levante seem intent on stealing all the right headlines.
A warm and sunny afternoon greeted Athletic to Valencia. Neatly nestled to the east of the city centre the Estadio Ciudad de Valencia lurks behind the Mestalla Stadium in terms of appearance and capacity. Instead it provides a homely yet colourful setting for visiting fans with a neat compact enclosed feel.
Overall Levante are a well balanced and compact side now well established in the top tier. The main squad player is the huge defensive lynchpin Sergio Ballesteros who to use Scottish terminology is ‘built like a brick outhouse’. Although slower than he was during his prime he still uses his body weight and sense of positioning to manoeuvre many forward players out of position. Up front the sheer size and weight of Ballesteros means he has the ability to cause problems at corners and unsettle the opposition goalkeeper.
After struggling for many seasons Bilbao have encountered success under Marcelo Bielsa. The well known Argentinian has worked tremendously well alongside the well known club recruitment and coaching system forging hard working sides full of pace and hard work.
During fixtures he is known for his crouching analytical manner and has re-energised the Bilbao club which struggled for many years.
Whilst relations between Bielsa and his squad appeared to be positive during the previous campaign this season things have been different with the club struggling in La Liga and already out of UEFA competition. Criticism of his side has seen a number of players become unhappy with internationalist Llorente being the most high profile of those said to be unsettled. Largely the tall Spanish international has been stuck on the bench. There is talk of a move to a host of European clubs and Juventus have been mentioned as his likely destination.
There is a quiet feel in Valencia city centre but local feeling for Levante is visible given how well the team are performing. A lot of locals are strangely all wrapped up in hats and gloves despite the temperature being around 16c by early afternoon with clear blue skies all around.
Valencia is a far cleaner city than Barcelona and has a small historical centre which offers numerous places of interest. It is also a city that is more compact than the larger Catalonian capital and far easier to navigate. Temperatures in Valencia also tend to be a few degrees higher than those encountered in Barcelona.
Athletic Bilbao took the lead through Aduriz and are totally dominant in the early exchanges. Then after about twenty minutes Levante started to find a real flow and equalised through the German right back Christian Lell who rocketed a shot past Iraizoz. The German Lell in particular looked very menacing down the right wing making a number of exchanges with his midfielders and probing the Bilbao defenders.
Just before half time Levante make home superiority count by taking the lead. Ibora scored after Bilbao were reduced to ten men. Bilbao were then reduced to trying long range shots from outside the box and Levante managed to score another through Nabil El Zhar the Moroccan forward.
Athletic Bilbao look a shadow of the side they were during the last campaign and do seem to be suffering something of a hangover. Bielsa continues to strut the touchline and studiously examines the on-field play but even his insight and tactical knowledge is not enough.
With Llorente seemingly on his way to Serie A the chances are many other Bilbao stars will also seek moves. Iker Munian or Ander Herrera may fancy a shot at the higher end of the English Premier League due to the salaries on offer.
Levante meanwhile can look forward to a Europa League last 32 match against Olympiakos in February with great anticipation. Even if they do bow out at the knockout stage participation in the tournament has clearly been something of a joy for Levante fans.
Munua, Lell, David Navarro, Juanfran, Ballesteros, Diop, Iborra, Michel, Ruben Garcia, El Zhar, Roger Marti
Coach: Juan Ignacio
Iraizoz, Iraola, Ekiza, Laporte, Gurpegi, Susaeta, Ander Herrera, Aduriz, Munjain, De Marcos, Ibai
Coach: M. Bielsa