x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Athletic Bilbao have improved by leaps and bounds

From relegation strugglers to European contenders in five years. Andy Mitten looks at the Basque club. Sports round-up

Athletic Bilbao's forward Iker Muniain is only 19 but has played more than 100 games for his team.
Athletic Bilbao's forward Iker Muniain is only 19 but has played more than 100 games for his team.

Athletic Club Bilbao are enjoying their best season in years.

The Basque giants have been on the up since 2007 when they finished 17th, one place above a potential first ever relegation.

The last three years have seen them finish 13th, eighth and sixth - earning them a place in the Europa League this term where they have excelled and will meet Manchester United in last 16.

Athletic are confident. They are playing Barcelona-like football under Marcelo Bielsa, their eccentric genius of a coach, and will face the Catalans in the final of the Copa del Rey.

They are currently fifth in the league, just a point off a Champions League place, and are watching their new 55,000-capacity stadium rise on land adjacent to their historic San Mames stadium - or "the cathedral" as it is known locally.

More good news came last week when four Athletic players were called up for the Spain squad for the friendly against Venezuela.

The defenders Andoni Iraola and Javi Martinez and the strikers Fernando Llorente and 19-year-old Iker Munian were selected, the latter for the first time.

Only Barcelona have more players in the squad, which is how it was at Under 21 level when Spain dominated their way- Barca style - to the European championships in June 2011.

Among those players was Munian. He has the demeanour of a mischievous schoolboy - and he had just left school when he made his Athletic first-team debut at 16 and became the youngest player in the club's history.

He usually plays on the left of a front three in a 4-3-3 which has scored more goals than any team in Spain after the big two this season.

The fearless Munian is fast and can go past a player in a one-on-one situation, though he has looked tired recently after starting more games than any other outfield Athletic player this term.

Munian will not be 20 until December, but he has already played more than 100 professional games for his club and 40 for is country at various age levels.

He is loving life at Athletic and with things going so well, who can blame him?