Praised by Sir Alex Ferguson after his team beat Manchester United FC 3-2 at Old Trafford last week, coach Marcelo Bielsa is now eager to lead Athletic Club into their first European quarter-final since the 1976/77 UEFA Cup – when they lost the final to Juventus.
After goals from Fernando Llorente, Óscar de Marcos and Iker Muniain consigned United to their first back-to-back European home defeats since 1996, Sir Alex could not fault the visitors from northern Spain. "The work ethic of their team is fantastic," he said. "[Bielsa] has built his side to work as hard as that and press the ball everywhere on the pitch. They never stopped running. His team probably mirror himself."
Athletic's exhausting pressing game has been drilled into the Basque outfit during demanding training sessions, conducted by the man known as 'El Loco' (the madman) for – in his own words – "my sometimes exaggerated behaviour". Crazy it may be, but it has brought the best out of Muniain, De Marcos, Llorente and company. Moving FIFA World Cup winner Javi Martínez from midfield into defence has also borne fruit in a campaign in which Athletic have already booked a Copa del Rey final against FC Barcelona.
Relatively unknown in Europe, Bielsa has long been big news in South America. Having won national honours with CA Newell's Old Boys (who named their stadium in his honour) and CA Vélez Sársfield, he briefly moved to Spain to coach RCD Espanyol in 1998, but swiftly decamped home when offered the Argentina job. Having occupied that hot seat until 2004, he led Chile's national team from 2007–11, overseeing an improvement in results.
The 56-year-old then landed in Bilbao last July as a replacement for out-of contract Joaquín Caparrós. If his start was inauspicious – Athletic winning just one of their first seven Liga games – the 2-0 UEFA Europa League group stage victory over Paris Saint-Germain FC on 29 September marked a sea change for the Leones. Their scintillating football left the French side well beaten.
"I have always believed that playing well will get you closer to achieving the right result," Bielsa once said. "I never thought there was any other way. I think teams should be prepared to have possession of the ball and to win it back when the occasion demands. Making a big physical effort and also being creative are compatible values, not opposing ones."
An Olympic gold winner as Argentina boss in 2004, Bielsa also credits Argentinian supporters with helping to forge his style. "At Newell's and Vélez, when the ball went from defence to attack along the ground, the crowd were happy. When it went forward in the air, you could hear murmurs of discontent," he explained. "There is also a universal truth: when your team wins, everything you do is great; when you lose, it's your fault."
Should they avoid defeat in Thursday's UEFA Europa League round of 16 second leg, the Cathedral – as San Mamés is known – is sure to be singing Bielsa's praises once more.
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