San Mames, Bilbao Despite the disappointment, Athletic Bilbao head coach Gaizka Garitano remained upbeat. The task of keeping a club who has never been relegated from Spain’s top flight there for another season lies with him. A victory against Valladolid would have improved the spirits in Bilbao heading into the winter break, for some time it was coming true, but at the last, it escaped them. Following a difficult 12 months, this was always going to be a Blue Christmas for Athletic.

One point is definitely better than none, but in Athletic’s position, the three that they were so tantalizingly close to obtaining would have been valuable. They failed to hang on, “it escaped them” in the final moments claimed Garitano; Aritz Aduriz’s penalty appeared to be enough but an equaliser deep into second-half stoppage time thwarted what would have been a priceless victory.

This was only Garitano’s third league game in charge of Los Leones; his tenure began with a win against Girona and following Saturday’s draw he remains unbeaten. Five points from three games has taken Athletic out of the bottom three, but only just. This is a personal job for Garitano as his task of maintaining Athletic’s 100 per cent attendance record in La Primera resembles one that his father took on over a decade ago.

Angel Garitano arrived at Athletic as assistant to new coach Jose Manuel Esnal in the late autumn of 2006 with the club having won only once in all competitions and in the relegation zone on eight points. Keeping Bilbao up went right until the final day of the season, but they did. They had saved their football club. With a new president elected in the following summer, both Garitano and Esnal were gone; their work there was done.

It is fair to say that 12 years on, there is a strong sense of déjà vu. Once again Garitano has been brought in to save his families beloved club from relegation, this time its Gaizka. And it is difficult to find a person better suited to giving this – and them – they’re all. He is very much a Basque-man having played at Athletic, Real Sociedad, Alaves and Eibar; his true love beyond football is Bersolaritza, a type of singing-poetry prevalent in the Basque Country.

At Athletic, Garitano is picking up the reins following a troubling year for the side. Eduardo Berizzo was only appointed in the summer, and now in December, he is a former manager and unable to feasibly argue with the club’s decision. Under Berizzo, Athletic had won just one of 13 La Liga matches with their safety slipping away quicker and quicker by the week. Although Athletic have moved away from the top of the table in recent years, such danger like this has not existed at the club since the 2006/07 season. The need for a Garitano to save them has arrived once again.

Relegation would be very difficult for the supporters of Athletic to take; they moved into the new and impressive San Mames stadium in 2013, have been a frequenter of European competitions for many years and have produced a number of young talented players that have been acquired by bigger clubs. And yet, relegation is not the be all and end all for this special club. Garitano knows himself that Bilbao will not veer from their philosophy even in testing times – it is widely acknowledged that the club would rather be relegated than compromise their long-held values.

Whether in agreement or not as to whether this approach is successful, Athletic are their own club, slightly detached from modern-day football. But an inspection of their achievements in the past 20 years suggests that their philosophy works, even now and also in the future. They have the Basque-only policy, which has shifted over the years and developed a sense of elasticity but it still really remains the same: The only footballers who can play for Athletic are those who have been developed in the Basque Country. It is respected, rigid and a matter of principle; one that everyone at the club buys into.

The debate regarding the success and the necessity of it always remains in the background, it is the whispered caveat to all that Athletic do and don’t do. Even with the most difficult six months of the club’s recent history approaching, it will be backed. Always. A first-ever relegation will most likely come some day, whether it be in May 2019 or not, but the club continues to resist and doing so according to their philosophy.

Three matches into Garitano’s time in charge and Athletic are showing signs of improvement but not enough to encourage too much optimism. The winter break is now with us and represents a chance for the club to come together and approach the next few months with a sense of unity for which the Basque Country is renowned. However, irrespective of their policies, their philosophies and their managers, the players have not performed adequately on the pitch and their position in the standings is no lie. It is easy to question the work rate during difficult times, but Athletic have not been as imposing of late and, uncharacteristically, lacked fight.

Despite the disappointment on Saturday evening, there was more impetus and aggression from Athletic than in previous home matches this season. “We cannot be depressed,” stated Garitano; more risk-taking and creativity – of which Athletic have been lacking recently – will only come with confidence. Their performance against Valladolid did much to inspire the players, but the finish will in some ways overshadow that.

Once again it was Los Leones’ struggle to create chances that let them down. “We did a good job on the wings but trying to find the forwards was difficult and we had to give a lot of effort,” Garitano said. “Overall the team lacked chances and didn’t make good decisions in the final third.” Inaki Williams and Aduriz have only scored six goals between them in the league this season, Iker Muniain has been their best player having scored four from midfield. The sale of Kepa Arrizabalaga has left Unai Simon and Iago Herrerin competing for the number one shirt but neither have fully convinced.

Against Valladolid, Athletic started strongly – as has been the case in Garitano’s first few matches. Ander Capa tamely shot straight at Jordi Masip just outside the six-yard box following a lifted long ball by Raul Garcia and a pullback from Aduriz. It was a half in which the hosts dominated the ball but struggled to get beyond the well-structured Valladolid defence.

With little under a minute until halftime, Athletic got their break. Muniain brought the ball down in the penalty area and slammed it towards goal only for Keko to raise his arms and block the shot. Referee Sanchez Martinez pointed to the spot and up stepped 37-year-old striker Aduriz to score in inventive style. He took one step back from the spot and quickly stepped forward again shooting to the right and catching Masip out. It was the type of innovation that Athletic need to show on a more regular basis.

Valladolid were much the better side in the second half as Garitano’s men seemed to tire quickly. Oscar Plano saw his shot strike the outside of the goalpost as the visitors became increasingly in control. Athletic did, however, dominate in the wide areas with Williams and Capa both creating on the flanks. A narrow victory almost secured, Garitano decided to sure up the central areas, bringing on Inigo Cordoba and Mikel San Jose.

But two minutes into stoppage time, Valladolid went for it. They had nothing to lose. Five purple and white shirts were in the area, Daniele Verdi and Ruben Alcaraz linked up on the right side. The ball was played into the area, then came chaos and then the goal, scored by Plano. It was quickly reviewed by VAR for a possible offside and then given to break Athletic hearts.

Garitano could only stand on the touchline and look on. At full time he applauded his players and the supporters. But in truth, none wanted to know. Some sat on the turf, others had their shirts covering their heads. It was hard to take – a draw that felt like a defeat. Though few know Athletic or the Basque Country like Garitano does, he has a tough job in replicating his father and keeping the club in La Primera.

Los Otros Puntos

In fact, it was a weekend full of late La Liga goals. Wissam Ben Yedder headed in past Pichu Cuellar in the second minute of stoppage time to rescue a point for Sevilla against Leganes amidst the fog of Madrid. Whilst Christian Piccini scored against Huesca in the 94th minute meaning that Valencia didn’t draw another game but rather won, 2-1.

“It was the objective to end the year as leaders with the same advantage we had before this round of matches started, so we’re happy,” Ernesto Valverde said. Barcelona may not have been at their fluent best so far this season but they still lead the way; this 2-0 win over Celta Vigo featuring goals from Ousmane Dembele and the deadly axis of Jordi Alba-Leo Messi means La Blaugrana are top at the winter break.

Lucas Hernandez – rumoured to be on his way to Bayern Munich in the January transfer window – was the name on every Atletico Madrid fan’s lips in the lead up to Saturday’s match against Espanyol, though it was Antoine Griezmann’s that was on them at full time. His penalty secured a home win, sending Espanyol to their sixth straight La Liga defeat.

Los Resultados

Girona 1-1 Getafe

Real Sociedad 0-1 Alaves

Real Betis 1-1 Eibar

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Espanyol

Barcelona 2-0 Celta Vigo

Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Valladolid

Valencia 2-1 Huesca

Leganes 1-1 Sevilla

Rayo Vallecano 2-1 Levante

Villarreal – Real Madrid postponed due to Real’s involvement in Fifa Club World Cup

La Clasificación

La Liga Analysis Opinion Athletic Bilbao

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