Season preview: Athletic Bilbao

Season preview: Athletic Bilbao
© PA Photos
Sports Mole considers whether Athletic Bilbao can secure a European position in La Liga next season.

For a team that so comfortably took apart Manchester United in the Europa League the season before last, it proved to be a highly disappointing campaign for the Basque outfit last term.

It has been a summer of change, however, with former Valencia boss Ernesto Valverde replacing Marcelo Bielsa at the helm and a number of players seeking pastures new.

Here, Sports Mole assesses whether Bilbao can improve on their 12th-place finish from the previous season.

In: Benat Etxebarria (Real Betis), Kike Sola (Osasuna), Mikel Belenziaga (Real Valladolid), Xabier Etxeita (Elche)

Out: Fernando Llorente (Juventus), Fernando Amorebieta (Fulham), Xabier Castillo (Las Palmas), Igor Martinez (Mirandes), Raul Fernandez (Numancia), Isma Lopez (Sporting Gijon), Iban Zubiaurre (Racing)

Last season: 12th

Manager: Ernesto Valverde

Three key players:

Benat Etxebarria© PA Photos
Benat: Breaking into a Spanish midfield that is dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona is no simple task, but Benat did manage to force his way into his national manager's plans last season with some fine performances for Real Betis. He swapped European football for Bilbao this summer, however, turning down a number of European sides in the process. At just 26, he certainly has his best years ahead of him, while he will provide a presence in midfield that Bilbao have lacked since Javi Martinez departed for Bayern Munich. His presence in the heart of the team could also bring out the best in Ander Herrera, who has just seen his career stall in the last 12 months.

Ander Herrera© PA Photos
Ander Herrera: At the age of 23, Herrera can no longer be considered as an emerging talent in Spanish football. When he broke into the Real Zaragoza side in 2008, he had been tipped to take the world by storm. Bilbao managed to convince the Spaniard to join the club in 2011, with his performances during the 2011-2012 campaign suggesting that big things were ahead. It didn't quite happen for Herrera last season, however, with injuries and a lack of confidence stunting his progress. He already has just short of 150 league appearances to his name in the top level of Spanish football, which is some feat at such a young age. However, he really needs to have a big season in the new campaign if Bilbao are to challenge at the top end of the table.

Iker Muniain© PA Photos
Iker Muniain: Much like Herrera, it proved to be a disappointing campaign for Muniain last season. He was another that was tipped for the very top when he broke into the first team in the 2009-2010 season, but it would be fair to say that he has not yet realised his potential. Although not primarily a striker, Muniain managed just one league goal in 33 games last season and two in 43 games in all competitions. There is no doubting his talent and at the age of 20, he still has more than enough time to emerge into one of the finest forwards in La Liga. If he can rediscover his scoring touch, he will surely play a key role in Bilbao's fight for European football in the new campaign.

First game: Real Valladolid (A) Aug 17

Sports Mole says: Although Fernando Llorente remained committed to the cause last season, it was not too difficult to realise that his presence in the dressing room, after agreeing to join Juventus at the end of the season on a free transfer, harmed the morale of the team. It would also be fair to say that there were problems between certain players and the previous management, something which has now been eradicated. Bilbao did show glimpses of their best form last season, but there was no consistency about their play. When they were good, they were really good, but when they were bad, they were the worst team in the league. There seems to be a better feeling around the club this summer, however, while they certainly have the squad to secure a European finish in the new campaign.

Predicted finish: Seventh

Real Sociedad boss Philippe Montanier on the touchline on March 24, 2012
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