Tim Stannard reports on a brilliant night for the Basque Country, as Athletic Bilbao qualify for Europe's elite competition in their first official game at the shiny new San Mamés...
If the accursed dagger of UEFA seeding hadn't pointed threateningly towards Athletic Bilbao and Napoli, then both of these fine sides would have been progressing to the Champions League group stages instead of do-nothing placeholders like Arsenal (lol, jks).
Athletic have a spanking new stadium bursting to the seams with chirpy, drunken Basque types, while the Italians have the energy, panache and vaguely iffy whiff of a group of fans that has questionable refuse collection facilities within its city limits (if you didn't watch The Sopranos... ah, forget it).
Instead, one team had to step aside and that was Napoli, leaving Serie A’s rather troubled relationship with the Champions League barely on speaking terms, and the dishwasher loaded in a passive-aggressive manner.
La Liga is currently getting on swimmingly with the competition, with both parties finishing each other’s sentences, looking lovingly into each other’s arms and enjoying weekend afternoons kicking leaves in parks and feeding ducks. That’s what offering up the two finalists and having four teams in the group stages once again will do for you.
Last year, Real Sociedad flew the flag for the Basque Country and didn't do awfully well. More is expected from the more robust Athletic, which is the odd one out among most of the teams in Thursday’s draw – LLL is looking at you here, PSG and Manchester City – by actually running a profit, using homegrown players and consistently performing above expectations despite losing their best players every summer.
The losses of Ander Herrera and Javi Martínez have been shrugged off with the rise of Ander Iturraspe in the centre of midfield, alongside the revelatory Mikel Rico. The midfield is well stocked for creativity with Markel Susaeta, Beñat Etxebarria and Oscar de Marcos all knocking about.
The audibly creaking but admirably effective Aritz Aduriz continues to bear the burden of goalscorer-in-chief, meanwhile, and popped up with a brace in the wonderful new San Mamés after Marek Hamsik had opened the scoring at the start of the second half.
After the match, coach Ernesto Valverde revealed that the pressure of finishing fourth last season, and thus only having one tippy toe in the Champions League, had been weighing heavily on the team over the summer. The normally dour Valverde, who is Scots-like in his scrunched up frowniness, admitted there was a bit of a do in the Athletic dressing room after the game. “It’s been a complete party,” he confirmed, presumably while donning a cardboard hat.
There will be no concerns for Athletic fans about whether or not the Champions League campaign will be a mythical distraction for the team in La Liga. When Spanish sides get into Europe they take the whole concept very seriously indeed, which is why they tend to win a bunch of times.
Athletic will be tougher opponents than La Real were last season, and an away day in Bilbao will be a tremendous bout of fun for travelling fans.
The pressure of being so close yet so far away from the Champions League is now off the club, the new stadium is just about complete and the current squad is proving that it can ride out the constant squalls of player departures. The Basque Country continues to be a very happy haven of football.