x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Athletic Bilbao are losing their agility

Basque club's form has dipped alarmingly from the previous season, writes Andy Mitten.

Athletic Bilbao, in red and white, were competely outrun by Real Madrid in the Primera Liga during the weekend. Zipi / EPA
Athletic Bilbao, in red and white, were competely outrun by Real Madrid in the Primera Liga during the weekend. Zipi / EPA

The Real Madrid star had finished talking platitudes and cliches following their 5-1 weekend victory over Athletic Bilbao. He was far more interesting off the record.

"The last time we played them, they never stopped running and knew exactly where to run," he said of his Basque opponents. "They still run now, but they seem to have no idea where they are running to."

It was an accurate, if damning appraisal of an Athletic Bilbao side who were good enough to thrill millions on their way to reaching the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals only six month ago.

The two defeats seem have hit them hard. In the changing room after the domestic final defeat, their talented but unpredictable coach Marcelo Bielsa accused them of failing the people who had supported them, accused them of earning too much money and of being out of touch with reality.

It was hard-hitting, emotional and even unfair. Maybe he was lost in the moment, but his side seem to be still stuck in that rut.

Javi Martinez aside, the anticipated summer exodus of their stars did not happen. Athletic still have the same players who did so well last season, only they should be better after the experiences.

They are not. Only Deportivo have conceded more goals than the Basques in the league this season and their current 13th place is not good enough for a team expected to finish in the top six.

Athletic found salvation in Europe last season, but their form abroad is even worse.

They have lost three and drawn one of their four Europa League group games so far and could be eliminated if they don't beat Hapoel Kiryat Shmona in Israel.

That game was supposed to be tonight and the players were at the airport when they heard it had been postponed because of the current conflict in Israel.

It should take place next week. Even if they win, Athletic are relying on other results going their way.

That leaves the Copa del Rey and the now to be rescheduled return leg against their third division Basque neighbours Eibar. The minnows held Athletic to a 0-0 draw in the first leg.

With the non-scoring striker Fernando Llorente hoping to leave amid rumours of dressing room rifts and players unhappy with Bielsa, Athletic face an uphill task to rescue their season.

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