On a spellbinding night in Basque Country, Athletic Bilbao knock league-leaders Real Madrid off their pedestal.
Soccer can be life-changing. We all know this — at least those of us who’ve already been seduced by the game in irrefutable ways — but reminders don’t hurt. When the atmosphere of a stadium explosively collides with a moment, there isn’t much like it anywhere in the world, let alone in the arena of sports. In its short life, the new and beautiful San Mames ground in Bilbao, Spain has provided multiple such affairs. Saturday was the latest.
Athletic Bilbao will face Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final on May 29th. But before that, the Basques figured they’d give one last gesture to their Catalan comrades in the form of a title race nudge, as Athletic club defeated Real Madrid on Saturday by a score of 1-0. While the victory meant little for the hosts who merely jumped to 8th place, for the visitors it meant forfeiting their place atop the La Liga table. With their 6-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on Sunday, Barcelona overtook Real at the summit.
From Athletic’s side, there were too many heroes to mention. Of course, the one and only goal on the day from Aritz Aduriz was a thing of technical and physical elegance. The longtime Basque journeyman on his third stint with the club ran riot on Real’s backline for most of the night. He was a constant outlet for Athletic’s ball-winning high-press, which was no better illustrated than in the winner. As Inaki Williams won the ball in midfield, a calculated counterattack ensued that gave Real little time to react. By the time the Merengues were set to defend, a brilliantly delivered curling pass from Mikel Rico found the near-post run of Aduriz, who perfectly trajected his header beyond the stretch of Iker Casillas. It was Aduriz’s 8th goal in his last nine games.
But with all due respect to the elderly Aduriz, this ultimately was a night to be remembered for its greener talents.
Iker Muniain has been the “next big thing” on Spanish soil for years now. Still only 22-years-old, the little Basque magician has been somewhat left behind by such decorated counterparts as Koke and Isco. But on any given occasion, like on Saturday, Muniain’s output can seem otherworldly.
His constant pressure on Real Madrid’s defense and midfield was so often the first wave in a string of tsunamis that led to the visitors nearly conceding that Toni Kroos probably saw the Spaniard in his nightmares later on. Though he only lasted 64 minutes, the shift Muniain put in cannot be quantified by time. Without his pestering display, there’s a good chance this result never happens.
Though if there’s one youngster who built himself into Basque-lore on Saturday, it was Inaki Williams. Showcasing both the hold-up acumen of Aduriz and the commitment of Muniain, Williams played an irreplaceable part in Athletic’s triumph. There were no simply no facets of the game in which the 22-year-old wasn’t involved heavily. From winning the ball in the middle of the park, to providing a steady wide outlet on counters, to using his immaculate touch to tease and prod Real’s fullbacks, the young Athletic product barely put a foot wrong all afternoon. It was a Man of the Match performance, and one that led to his name being sung in a touching standing ovation from the San Mamaes faithful upon his 75th minute substitution.
Athletic club have a propensity to giant-kill on big stages. This game wasn’t all that different from some of their scalps in the past like, for instance, when they mauled Manchester United in the 2011/12 Europa League Round of 16. The same feverish high-press that won them that encounter also won them this one. Real Madrid’s inventive forces — Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos — were given no time to create, which ultimately led to a stagnated and frustrated performance from the Blancos. In fact, it’s become a trend for Athletic. This shutout makes it six clean sheets in their last seven games. This very well could be a sign of a side that’s turning a corner in their campaign.
But despite any tactical advantages Ernesto Valverde’s side employed against Real, the game — and most games in general — come down to moments of decisiveness and quality. That’s where Athletic can raise their hands higher than most mid-table clubs of any top-flight. Having a firm philosophical demand on their players naturally produces year-to-year squads that can compete with the best on any occasion. Playing the Basques, specifically at San Mames, is always a chore. At the moment, Real Madrid know this better than anyone.
The thing I love most about these nights of football is the unquestionable attraction of the event. Real weren’t supposed to lose this match, regardless of Athletic’s traditional banana-skin tendencies. But a combustible mixture of passion between the players and the fans created something ripe and exclusive and inimitable. A pure gravitational pull that assured hearts and minds were captivated, because any other outcome would be unreasonable. There’s absolutely zero chance that a single soul left that ground without possessing a love for football. It might’ve been a love that had always been there and was just being reinforced in the most fantastic way. Or it could’ve been a new convert who’d just had their spirits swept away by the undeniable charm of the game. Either way, football reigned at the San Mames on Saturday.