This summer has not been ideal for one of last year’s most neutral-savvy clubs Athletic Bilbao. The Basque side that only fields Euskadi men predominantly reared through their impressive youth system attracted huge praise for the way in which they negotiated the UEFA Europa League last season; seeing off Manchester United in style along the way.
Yet this sort of form did not go unnoticed for the historical club and soon there major players became the envy of teams around Europe. First they lost talented central-midfielder turned centre-back Javi Martinez for a large sum to German side Bayern Munich. Things soon got worse when star striker Fernando Llorente announced his intentions to leave the club at the end of his current contract. Fiery Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has since used him sparingly and also got into fights with construction workers at the training ground; just to top off the macabre atmosphere at the San Mames.
The club is much more than a football team to its fans; it is a symbol of Euskadi resilience and resistance and watching their star players being pilfered away is a direct contradiction of former heroes such as Julen Guerrero, Joseba Exteberria and Ismael Urzaiz who stuck it out at the club through thick and thin.
Now Bilbao are ready to bite back and win the race for a highly sought after Spanish international; and they are willing to spend the Martinez cash to do so.
The player in question is Benat Exteberria; the Real Betis playmaker dubbed ‘Xavi’s understudy' after breaking into Spain's national team and filling in for him in a recent friendly against Panama . He is a reported transfer target for Manchester City and Manchester United. One of the best players in La Liga this season he has helped Betis lead a charge for a Champions League spot and earned himself a place in the national team during the process.
The lure of playing for Bilbao cannot be underestimated for Basque nationals and the Biscay-born 25-year-old will know too well of that lure. As a youngster he was at the Bilbao cantera for over ten years before being released in 2009. Whether he will have any ill feeling toward the club after that indignity remains to be seen but there is little doubt that Bielsa wants to bring the Basque players home.
He is also thought to be chasing Malaga left-back Nacho Monreal; hoping to capitalise on the Andalusia sides current financial intricacies.
Given the cultural identification Bilbao has with the Basque people there is little doubt the Spanish side will be the biggest threat to any Manchester deal.
Do you think Benat could reject Manchester for his homeland?
image: © Jack Tanner