The road to Bucharest (part one)By: Jack | May 6th, 2012
As Athletic prepare for their first European final in 35 years it seems a long time ago that they started the run to the final.
Last season was the club’s best league performance for seven years as the team finished in the top 6 and secured European football. A win at Racing on the final day confirmed 6th place ahead of Atlético Madrid who had to enter the Europa League in the earlier round (I wonder how they got on…).
In the play-off round Athletic were drawn with Turkish side Trabzonspor with the first leg at San Mamés. Despite an early dismissal for the visitors it was to prove a frustrating night as the Turkish side sat back and defended. The Lions created many chances but couldn’t find the breakthrough and it ended 0-0.
Though they hadn’t conceded an away goal the second leg looked far from easy and it was a relief when Athletic went through without having to kick a ball. Fenerbache were kicked out of the Champions League due to the Turkish match fixing scandal and Trabzonspor took their place – putting Athletic straight through to the group stages. The Turkish side re-appeared in the Europa League after finishing 3rd in the Champions League group stage, but went out to PSV Eindhoven.
In the draw for the group stages Athletic were paired with Paris Saint-Germain, Red Bull Salzburg and Slovan Bratislava. The mega-rich French side were expected to top the group, but Athletic still had reasonable expectations to progress from the group.
The first game saw a win in Bratislava and the first under Bielsa. Next up the Parisians came to San Mamés but the Lions gave an excellent performance to win 2-0 in what proved to be a turning point in the season. We’d been struggling the league up to then as the side got to grips with Bielsa’s methods, but after this result and the derby win three days later the wins soon followed.
Matchday 3 proved to be less straightforward however. Up against a stubborn Salzburg defence Athletic were frustrated in attack and conceded twice on the counter. The Lions attacked and attacked in the second half and through two debatable penalties salvaged a draw. PSG’s draw with Slovan in the other game though meant the rojiblancos were still in pole position to progress.
The draw proved to only be a minor setback and qualification from the group was confirmed with a 1-0 win in Austria. Victory against Slovan at San Mamés sealed top spot (and in theory a more favourable draw in the knockout round) and in the final game a much changed side fell to defeat in Paris .
The team had advanced to the knockout stages with relative ease but in recent European campaigns it had all fallen apart in the knockout rounds, would this season be any different?