City face Spanish La Liga’s Athletic Bilbao at Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday in the Bluebirds’ final preparation for the big Barclays Premier League kick-off against West Ham United on 17th August.
Winners of La Liga eight times in their history, with 23 successes in domestic cup competition Copa del Rey to boot – Malky Mackay’s men face a real pre-season test on Saturday afternoon as they take on Ernesto Valerde’s Athletic Club outfit.
Based in The Basque Country, Athletic Bilbao finished a solid twelfth in La Liga last year, and carry the prestigious badge of never being relegated from Spain’s top division – the two other teams that share this accolade both compete in El Classico.
Bilbao’s nickname, Los Leones (The Lions) has historical roots; their stadium was built near San Mammes church, Mammes being an early Christian persecuted by the Romans. He was thrown to the lions, but luckily for Mammes they refused to eat him, and has since been made a martyr. Continuing the theme, Bilbao’s home – the San Mamés Stadium – is known as the football cathedral.
Bilbao are famously known for bringing local players through the ranks, those that hail from the Basque region, recieving plaudits for promoting club loyalty. Their kit has a colourful history, too – in 1909, a student was tasked with bringing back the club twenty-five new shirts and while in London he noticed that the Southampton strip mirrored Bilbao’s crest, subsequently buying fifty. Since then, they have won La Liga eight times.
Their more recent achievements include Iker Muniain breaking into the squad at the age of sixteen, qualifying for the Europa League in the 2010/11 season with Spanish international Fernando Llorente spearheading the attack, and the following year knocking Manchester United out of the competition, beating the English champions 3-2 at Old Trafford and 2-1 at home. Bilbao were considered the underdogs as the tie was announced, but goals from Llorente in both legs ensured victory, a highlight of the Marcelo Bielsa era. They navigated their way to the final, only to be defeated 3-0 by a Rademel Falcao-led Athletico Madrid.
Incredibly, the same year they reached the Copa Del Rey final only to be defeated 3-0 once more, this time at the hands of Barcelona. Llorente has since completed a Bosman move to Juventus this summer and manager Bielsa has moved on, ex-player Ernesto Valerde taking the helm.
This summer the club has signed defender Xabi Etxeita from Elche and kept Mikel Balenziaga who spent the previous four seasons on loan, brought in midfielder Benat Etxebarria from Real Betis and striker Kike Sola from Osasuna. Crucially, Bilbao still have Spanish international Iker Muniain and much coveted Markel Susaeta, together the creative hub of the team.
KEY PLAYER –IKER MUNIAIN
Muniain is and has been touted to be one of the most promising young talents in European football for many years now. Mainly deployed as a left winger, he has been dubbed the “Spanish Messi” by media due to his size and unpredictable dribbling style. Keeping hold of the twenty year old mercurial talent is seen to be the key to progression at Athletic Club.
ONE TO WATCH– BENAT EXTEBARRIA
Etxebarria’s return to Athletic Club was confirmed in June after just over three years away from the Basque club with Real Betis. Returning for a reported fee of £8.3 million, the midfielder, most commonly known as Benat, has been known for his excellent positioning and midfield passing ability during Betis’ rise back to prominence in La Liga over the last few seasons. Now back with the Athletic Club, they’ll be hoping to see the return of his seemingly effortless creativity at the heart of their midfield.
Pre-Season so far:
CardiffCity – WDLW –
4-3 W (Forest Green), 1-1 D (Cheltenham Town), 2-3 L (Brentford), 1-0 W (Chievo)
Athletic Club – WWDLDW –
6-1 W (Club Bermeo), 4-0 W (Eintracht Braunschweig), 0-0 D (Freiburg), 1-4 L (Real Zaragoza), 0-0 D (Nice), 2-0 W (Numancia)
Last starting line-ups:
Cardiff City: Marshall; Brayford, John, Kim, Hudson (C), Turner, Whittingham, Cowie, Campbell, Smith, Noone.
Athletic Club: Herrerin, Etxeita, Ekiza, Laporte, Aurtenetxe, Moran, Perez, Ibai, Herrera, Aduriz, Sola.
Manager – Ernesto Valverde
Valverde returns to Athletic Club for his fourth spell this summer, having previously been a player and an assistant manager at the Basque club before his stints as a manager. Now back at the helm for the second time, he’ll be tasked to re-establish the Basque club has a force in La Liga this season after a relatively average 2012-13 campaign following the previous seasons successes in making the Europa League final.
Having left Bilbao in 2005, Valverde has recently brought success to Greek side Olympiakos during 2010-12, before spending last season with Valencia where he guided them to a fifth placed La Liga finish. Missing out on a Champions League qualification spot, Valverde left Valencia on 1st June becoming the Athletic Club boss soon after.