Athletic Club Bilbao managed to secure a long-awaited victory this weekend on the road at Almería. But with key fixtures ahead over the next fortnight, they must also produce consistency if they’re to avoid a season of mid-table obscurity in La Liga, says ISF’s Heath Chesters.
Fourth spot in La Liga and qualifying for the Champions League gave Athletic Club Bilbao fans, much to celebrate last season. Given that achievement – even with the sale of Ander Herrera to Manchester United the core of the squad remains unchanged – more of the same, if not better, was expected when the 2014-2015 campaign got started.
Strong performances and results against Napoli in the final qualifying stage of the Champions League sent the Basque side through to the lucrative group stages of the competition and everything seemed rosy. Results since then however, have been a shadow of what was promised.
Defeat at Málaga on the opening day of the season was perhaps seen as a blip, particularly when that was followed up by a comfortable win at home against Levante the following weekend. No cause for alarm, or so it seemed, even after a defeat in their next encounter at the Camp Nou. Concerns began to grow however after a disappointing loss on home turf at the San Mamés against Granada. A further defeat away at Rayo Vallecano, a home draw against Eibar, then the 5-0 thrashing suffered at the Bernabéu against Real Madrid, left things looking entirely gloomy. A home draw with Celta Vigo meant six games on the trot without a win, further complicated by two defeats and a draw in their opening three Champions League matches.
Nine games without winning for a club like Athletic, and especially after their previously successful season, is an alarming statistic indeed. Therefore it was with much relief this last weekend, when even with an unconvincing performance, the Basque side managed to take all three points with a narrow 0-1 victory at Almería.
“Hopefully it will be a turning point for us,” said manager Ernesto Valverde of the Almería result. Indeed, it must be exactly that now for Athletic if they’re going to avoid the kind of season that spelled the end for his predecessor, Marcelo Bielsa.
The next three games could be a pivotal indication of what Athletic may or may not achieve this season. Next Sunday, they host high-flying Sevilla at home, followed by a trip to Valencia at the Mestalla. Two crucial encounters against teams who have both made excellent starts and have their sights firmly set on jostling for the Champions League places this season in La Liga. Points must be taken against both if Valverde’s side are to harbour the same aspirations.
Sandwiched in between those two important La Liga matches, is another encounter with FC Porto in the Champions League. At the mid-way stage in the group phase and without a victory as yet, Athletic must effectively win all three of their remaining games if they’re to stand any realistic chance of progress in the competition.
Two weeks, three crucial games and what really could be the best indication of whether Athletic have indeed found their turning point.
This article originally appeared here.