x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Fernando Llorente looks ready to make the move from Bilbao to a bigger club

Fernando Llorente is thriving in a Bilbao team that hardly screams goals and it is only a matter of time until he steps onto a bigger stage.

On Sunday night at Camp Nou, it took a 77th-minute Lionel Messi goal to separate Barcelona from Athletic Bilbao, a side they have been unable to overcome in each of their two previous meetings. The 83,000 crowd hollered "Messi, Messi", but Athletic's coach felt his side deserved another draw.

Athletic are a team with an unmatched spirit and while the headlines focused on Barca's victory, the Basques' contribution to an absorbing encounter should not be underestimated, especially that of Fernando Llorente, their striker.

His 13 league goals so far see him fourth in the Pichichi top scorers' list behind the more celebrated Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi and David Villa.

That Llorente is playing in a side that has scored just over half Barca's 72-goal tally in the league makes his record more impressive, but he is far more than a goalscorer.

A big frontman who stands at 6ft 3ins, Llorente holds the ball and brings others into play around him. It is six years since he made his Athletic debut, but he improves season after season - as does his goal tally.

He became a Spain international despite competition from Fernando Torres and Villa, offering Vicente Del Bosque, the coach, a height option among his many diminutive stars. Most in Spain would like to see him start with Villa ahead of Torres.

Such form has seen Llorente become a target for bigger clubs. Real Madrid are the most commonly listed suitors, but it was Liverpool who sent representation to Bilbao in last month's January transfer window to negotiate with Llorente's brother Txus, a former lorry driver who now acts as his agent.

Liverpool were prepared to spend a reported €35 million (Dh175m) on Llorente to replace the outgoing Torres, but baulked at Athletic's €45m asking price. Liverpool then paid £35m (€41.5m) for Andy Carroll instead. Tottenham Hotspur also made a lesser bid as they scoured Europe, unsuccessfully, for a new forward.

The Basques do not want to see their best player leave, but they have a new 53,000 capacity stadium to fund and €45m would go a long way in a country still suffering an economic crisis.

It would be sad if he goes, but Llorente, 25, is in his seventh season in Athletic's first team. He has done his time and who could blame him if he wants to play Champions League football? Athletic are fifth in the league, but there are eight points separating them and Villarreal in fourth, the final Champions League qualification spot.

Those seven seasons have not been easy either. "I made my debut with Ernesto Valverde [the coach in 2005] but he left to join Espanyol and first [Jose Luis] Mendilibar and then Javier Clemente took over," Llorente said.

"They showed no confidence in me, and even though I was only 19 they tried to sell me or just leave me on the bench all the time. They called me a big lump, lazy and accused me of not running enough.

"But gradually other strikers left, the new coach, Joaquin Caparros pushed me to improve, and I started to score goals."

Playing for Spain helped him improve, too. "It had a marvellous impact on me," Llorente said. "When you are surrounded by the best players in the world, it teaches you about standards.

"From the first training session I knew that I had to improve everything about my game and to keep improving. I get a touch on the ball far less often than with my club. So I have had to improve."

Llorente is learning English and has spoke about his future.

"I have a hankering to try new pastures and new experiences some time in my career," he told Marca. "When that happens, or where it will be is something I'm open minded about. I wouldn't duck an opportunity to play for a good team in England. I will keep an open mind about where next when the time comes."