After witnessing Athletic Club secure a UEFA Champions League play-off place by claiming fourth place in the Liga with two matches to go, coach Ernesto Valverde spoke of his "immense joy" on a weekend when Spain's top three teams all failed to win.
Aiming to return to the group stage of European club football's elite competition for the first time since 1998/99, the 2012 UEFA Europa League finalists took a significant step towards that goal as Friday's 3-0 win away to Rayo Vallecano de Madrid made sure of fourth place. "We knew we had three shots at this and didn't want to let even the first one pass; we approached it like a final," Valverde said after goals from Mikel San José, Óscar de Marcos and Ander Herrera ensured a 20th top-flight victory of the campaign. "We were all very tense; we knew Rayo were on a good run [of three wins in their last four], but the glory is ours."
Hailing his team's "collective strength", Valverde – a former Athletic forward – included suspended and injured players in a 26-man travelling squad for the trip to Madrid. "The unity, the connection within our group is our strength; in that sense, it's the best [group of players] I've had," the coach explained. "We have a different philosophy when it comes to finding new [and Basque] players and for that we have to fight hard, be more closely knit and show there is another way to compete."
Valverde arrived for a second spell in charge at Athletic following Marcelo Bielsa's departure last June and along with installing solidity – Los Leones have the fourth-best defensive record in the Liga – the coach has helped to bring out the the best in the side's star players. "For a team like ours, finishing behind [Club] Atlético de Madrid, [FC] Barcelona and Real Madrid [CF] is a triumph, especially for this club's special philosophy," he said. "It represents enormous joy to be to be in this UEFA Champions League play-offs but we have two Liga games remaining. Our goal is to register as many points as possible and to remain true to what we have been doing up until now."
Meanwhile, Diego Simeone confirmed Atlético "depend on ourselves" despite their 2-0 reverse at Levante UD on Sunday. The UEFA Champions League finalists hold a three-point lead over Barcelona – who drew 2-2 with Getafe CF – and have a five-point advantage on third-placed Madrid, although Carlo Ancelotti's team have a game in hand. "It was our time to lose but there are three fantastic, emotion-filled weeks to go in which we will see football in its purest form," Simeone explained. "When I said that the Liga was boring [earlier this season], it started to get entertaining."
Ancelotti pointed to Madrid's efforts in securing a UEFA Champions League final place against Atlético as the reason for their travails in the 2-2 home draw against Valencia CF. "We lacked a physical presence, which is normal after playing in the Champions League; the same thing happened to Atlético and Chelsea [FC] this weekend," said the Italian, whose side travel to Real Valladolid on Wednesday.