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Bilbao firmly in the picture

athletic-bilbao-300Athletic’s Cup efforts have earned praise at home and abroad

It is a photo you see everywhere and there is barely a bar in Bilbao without one. It is a picture of a barge making its way up the Nervion river so jam-packed that you can't believe its passengers have not fallen off into the water below. It's a miracle the people squeezed along the river banks haven’t fallen in too. Mind you, if they did they would probably tumble into one of the countless boats below - from dinghies to tugboats, from sailboats to rowing boats, battling to get alongside the barge. The picture comes from 1984 and depicts the celebrations marking Athletic Bilbao's league and cup double - the last time the club won anything. It is an astonishing scene and there is something almost mythical about it.

Just say the word gabarra (barge) and people immediately know what you are talking about. There is only one image that competes with the barge for prevalence and that is of the legendary striker Pichichi, who played between 1911 and 1921 and gave his name to the league’s top scorer award. There are reproductions of the famous painting of him by the artist Aurelio Arteta on walls throughout the city and there is even a bust of Pichichi at San Mames, Athletic's home ground, where teams lay flowers on their first visit to the stadium.

“Athletic are amazing. They run so hard, up and down, all of them, all the time”
Pep Guardiola

Few clubs, in fact few cities, do tradition, history, identity and symbolism like Athletic Bilbao - a club that still plays with only Basque players (even if the definition of Basque is somewhat elastic). The stadium is known as “the Cathedral” and rarely has it been a place of such worship as this year. At last there might be a new picture to replace the gabarra and the fans can hardly contain their excitement.

Athletic Bilbao will meet Barcelona in the Final of the Spanish Cup on May 25 and had also progressed to the quarter-finals of the Europa League after they beat favourites Manchester United. Actually, they hammered the English champions, completely out-running, out-playing and out-thinking them. As United manager Alex Ferguson explained after his side had been beaten home and away: "They have a cause and it is wonderful to see a team with such energy. Their work rate is higher than anyone I have seen in Europe."
Athletic's two games against United were their best performances of the season and their supporters celebrated long into the night, with some suggesting that the return leg was the best game they had ever seen at San Mames.

athletic-bilbao-22Demanding and obsessive

They call Athletic’s coach Marcelo Bielsa El Loco (the madman) and teenage striker Iker Muniain says he is "even madder" than you think: intense, demanding, obsessive over the tiniest details. Bielsa joined Athletic in the summer and Pep Guardiola has even suggested the Argentinian is the best coach in the world. "Athletic are an amazing team,” says the Barca boss. “They run so hard, up and down, up and down, up and down, all of them, all of the time - up, down, up, down, up, down." Traditionally a team that has been defined by its directness, they are most “English" of Spanish sides. Athletic still have that intensity and physical presence, but now they play on the floor and they are combining better. Fernando Llorente scored a wonderful goal against United on the volley and when Andoni Iraola put the ball fractionally wide it was one of the great goals that never was.

But just when they looked like candidates for La Liga’s last Champions League place, Athletic slipped away domestically, losing three in a row. They have a small squad but do not rotate, even though they have been fighting on three fronts, which means the physical demands are great. No Spanish team has played more games than them this season and fatigue - mental as much as physical - is in danger of setting in.

Bielsa believes his side are still running more than anyone else but some players are struggling - and an injury to Llorente in particular has hit them hard.Whatever happens, no one can ever take away those nights against United. And with a Spanish Cup Final and possibly further progress to the Europa League Final to come, hopes are high for more success. Who knows, this time next year there might even be a whole new set of pictures hanging on the walls of every bar in Bilbao.

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