With an intense schedule looming, the games are coming thick and fast for all of Europe’s major sides and this week could prove to be a season-defining period for both sides as we approach the business end of the season. Athletic Bilbao have struggled under Ernesto Valverde in his second season in charge, with the Basque side currently sitting in twelth with only twenty seven points from twenty four games, a major contrast to their fine form last season which saw them secure a Champions League spot finishing fourth with eighty points during the whole league campaign. The season looked prosperous with Los Leones defeating Rafa Benitez’ Napoli in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, before the seasons’ start in August, however it has become apparent of late that they have struggled to meet the demands of competing in several competitions and ultimately, their progression has faltered. Bilbao were drawn in Group H with Porto, Shakhtar Donestk and BATE Borisov, nevertheless, their total of seven points was a commendable feat for a side that had not featured in the group stage of the competition since 1998/99, but it was their shock defeat away in Belarus which seemingly buried the hatchet for Bilbao’s optimistic campaign. Athletic Bilbao had followed the same run as Real Sociedad the year beforehand who had made it through to the Group Stage but were unable to capitalise on their opportunity to progress past the group stages.
Bilbao’s elimination from the Champions League has seen them draw Italian side Torino in the Round of 32 in which looks set to be one of the ties of the round. Under Giampiero Ventura, Torino have gone from strength to strength with last season proving to be their most successful season in over a decade as they return to European Competition after a 12 year absence. The final day of the season on May 18th last year proved to be one of the most dramatic finishes in recent years in Serie A. Ahead of the final day of the season, Verona, Milan, Parma and Torino were all fighting for the final Europa League spot. Torino faced a tough challenge away at fourth placed Fiorentina while Parma were home to relegated side Livorno. Torino were without top goal scorer Ciro Immobile for the final game due to suspension and the pressure was on for the side from Turin to deliver the goods in their most important away victory of the season. It was an intense match which seen the game burst into life in the second half with both sides at 1-1 vying for a late winner and it was Fiorentina’s Rebic with a late sucker punch to ‘seemingly’ break Toro’s hearts. However, Kurtic replied with a stunning freekick with minutes to go leaving Torino frantically looking for a winner in the final minutes and were handed a lifeline when Barreto was brought down in the box by Roncaglia. Exceptionally, the match provided another twist with reliable winger Alessio Cerci (with the most assists in the league at that point) missing the penalty in the dying minutes to secure Parma’s place in the Europa League.
Live pictures were transmitted globally in a remarkable day of Serie A history, however, the Summer of 2014 produced a further twist in the story, whereby Parma were removed from the Europa League due to their financial irregularities and consequently, were then replaced by Torino. The outgoing Cerci admitted his relief for his mistake going unpunished. This season, Torino similarly to Athletic Bilbao have had to deal with high-profile outgoings in the Summer of 2014 with Toro losing Ciro Immobile to Borussia Dortmund and Alessio Cerci to Atlético Madrid while Bilbao have seen Ander Herrera move to Manchester United. Both sides into the midway point of the season sit in mid-table positions and would both hope and expect to move up much higher in the league standings by the end of May, thereby heightening the pressure of progression in the Europa League.
In comparison with last season, Bilbao are currently seventeen points worse off and they currently only have twenty-one goals in contrast to the forty-three they had to their name at this stage. It’s clear that Bilbao have struggled to find a consistent group of goalscorers with the Basque side relying on Aduriz who has scored thirty three percent of their goals in La Liga this year. This lead into the first tie of the Europa League encounter between Bilbao and Torino for Erneste Valverde to allow Iñaki Williams to make his debut in Europe and the young hot prospect made his mark in their 2-2 draw at the Stadio Olimpico scoring his first senior goal for Les Leones, the forward became the first black player to score in Bilbao’s 117 year history. The Granata were leading at home to Bilbao with January signing Maxi Lopez on target for his next side until the 73rd minute where Carlos Gurpegui came off the bench to net a late equaliser to take back to Spain. Bilbao’s has ensured that they were will progress into the next round with a victory, a 0-0 scoreline or a 1-1 draw.
Both sides have proved their passion for the competition in the past few weeks, prioritising the Europa League as a platform for success, the tie has already proved to be a cracker in the opening leg and it’s a certainty that we’ll be seeing fireworks on Thursday evening in the San Mámes Stadium.
Article written by: @Selby147