Friday 20 April 2018

Del Bosque taking advantage of resurgent Basques

Bilbao stars can fill void left by big-name Catalan casualties, writes Duncan White

IT IS a testament to the depth of Spanish footballing talent that they can transform the loss through injury of their influential captain and record goal-scorer into an opportunity.



Most teams would be on their knees if they lost players of the calibre of Carles Puyol and David Villa but Vicente del Bosque, the Spanish coach, can exploit the situation to further evolve a team looking to defend its European crown.

If Del Bosque, and before him Luis Aragones, have understandably looked to Barcelona and Catalonia for the core of their first team, for this tournament the Spain manager is looking to another of the country's independent-minded regions for new talent: the Basque country.

Athletic Bilbao's impressive striker Fernando Llorente is the favourite to take Villa's shirt and, with it, the responsibility for finishing off Spain's intricate attacking combinations.

At the back, Del Bosque has the option of replacing Puyol with the classy Javi Martinez, a defensive midfielder who has excelled since being converted to central defence for Bilbao this season. Both players are attracting the very top clubs in Europe and the next few weeks should tell you why.

With Xabi Alonso, who grew up in San Sebastian and came through at Real Sociedad, taking one of the deep-lying midfield slots, there will be a strong Basque flavour to this Spain team. It will only get stronger.

Athletic's Iker Muniain, dubbed the 'Spanish Messi' and still only 19, is only being kept out of the squad by Spain's ridiculous number of brilliant forwards: David Silva, Juan Mata, Pedro, Jesus Navas and Santi Cazorla. Andoni Iraola, the Athletic right-back, only missed out because of injury. Nacho Monreal, Malaga's left-back and another Basque, just missed the cut.

Later this summer Mikel San Jose, Oscar de Marcos, Ander Iturraspe, Ander Herrera and Cesar Azpilicueta are all expected to be involved with Spain's Olympic team.

While the Basque country has always produced great players this particular efflorescence is because of Athletic's revival as a force in Spanish football. Del Bosque is taking grateful advantage. Llorente does not look like he belongs in this diminutive Spain team. At 6ft 3in he brings a physicality to the No 9 role that recalls the Basque battering ram Ismael Urzaiz.

Except Llorente is also nimble and skilful, perfectly comfortable with the technical complexities of the Spanish game. He scored 29 goals for Athletic last season, as they finished fifth, and got to the finals of the Copa del Rey and the Europa League (losing in both). He scored in both legs of Athletic's 5-3 aggregate win over Manchester United and, at 27, is at the peak of his powers. That he is so effective in the air gives Spain a threat they have not really had in the past, without compromising their need to have a striker involved in the build-up play.

Martinez is another player who gives Spain a more robust physical presence. The 23-year-old has mostly played as a defensive midfielder but this season Marcelo Bielsa has successfully moved him into central defence -- just as Pep Guardiola has done with Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano at Barcelona. Martinez's passing

allows him to build from the back and with Spain dominating possession in nearly every game, this is a very valuable asset. It is no coincidence that Athletic's Basques gel so well with Barcelona's Catalans: their coaches are cut from the same cloth. Perhaps only Johan Cruyff has been more important than Bielsa to the way Guardiola thinks about football. Before he took the Barcelona manager's job he went out to Argentina to meet with Bielsa and absorb his ideas about the game.

So it is not surprising that under Bielsa, Athletic have sometimes challenged Barcelona in the style stakes. It is an achievement all the more remarkable as Athletic remain steadfastly committed to what is known as their cantera policy, by which they develop only Basque players in their academy and sign only Basque players from other clubs.

It has produced some great players for the Spanish national team, including Telmo Zarra, Jose Angel Iribar, Julen Guerrero, Julio Salinas and Andoni Zubizarreta.

Del Bosque will have much to thank it for if Llorente and Martinez prove able replacements for Villa and Puyol. Spain won every game in qualifying for the competition -- they have not lost a competitive game since that defeat to Switzerland in the group stages in the World Cup in South Africa -- and rival coaches have been trying to find ways of stopping them.

Some of them seem to be succeeding. Since winning the World Cup they have lost to Argentina, Portugal, Italy and England in friendlies. Del Bosque has continued to try to evolve Spain so they do not go stale, become complacent. To that end he will looking to Bilbao as well as Madrid and Barcelona.

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