Guerrero: Athletic philosophy reaps rewards

Julen Guerrero was the last Athletic Club player to score a goal in the UEFA Champions League, more than 16 years ago. We caught up with him ahead of their play-off decider.

Julen Guerrero made over 350 appearances for Athletic
Julen Guerrero made over 350 appearances for Athletic ©Getty Images

On 9 December 1998 Athletic Club played their last UEFA Champions League group stage match having competed in Europe's elite competition for the first time.

Despite failing to advance, the team gave a positive showing against Juventus, Galatasaray AŞ and Rosenborg BK. Attacking midfielder Julen Guerrero, the idol and emblem of that side, coached by the charismatic Luis Fernández, scored in Turin and netted the winner in Athletic's final game against Galatasaray.

Almost 16 years on, Athletic host SSC Napoli in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League play-off at the new San Mamés. Guerrero, 40, spoke to about his former club's chances of reliving that historic campaign. Sixteen years have passed since Athletic's last UEFA Champions League fixture. What memories do you have of those games?

Julen Guerrero: I have the best of memories of that time, even though we weren't able to qualify. I think we deserved more from the competition. In the game against Juventus in Turin and away to Galatasaray we had qualification in our hands. But we were in a very tough group. Describe a European night at the old San Mamés stadium ...

Guerrero: Everyone couldn't wait to hear the Champions League music playing. It was very exciting, I was so proud to play in those games. Especially for a team like Athletic, where all the players are home-grown. Qualifying for such a big competition with that philosophy is so important for this club and for the next generation of players. Does the fact Athletic have stayed loyal to their own philosophy make qualifying for the UEFA Champions League even more commendable?

Guerrero: The fans know how difficult it is for the team. So many clubs invest a lot of money in their squads and that makes it much harder for us, but Athletic, with their own philosophy and by working hard, have shown that it's possible and in the end it has paid off. Is the fact the new San Mamés stadium is now completed and will be full for the match an extra motivation for the players?

©Getty Images

Guerrero: This is a historic game. Last year the stadium wasn't complete, but this game will go down in history. What better way than to show off a brand-new finished stadium than in the Champions League. After the 1-1 draw in San Paolo, what do you make of Athletic's chances of qualifying for the group stage?

Guerrero: Napoli are an excellent team who have staked such a large part of this season on this tie. There is so much at stake for them, and Athletic need to try and play on their nerves and take advantage of that. Napoli like to play on the counterattack but they need to score. Athletic need to play with a cool head throughout the game. I think we have a very good chance of qualifying. Will Athletic be affected by the departure of Ander Herrera? How can Ernesto Valverde replace him?

Guerrero: Ernesto Valverde is putting his faith in Beñat Etxebarria and playing him in Ander's old position. He will take time to adapt because now he is playing 20 metres further forward than he was last year. Last season it also took Ander a bit of time to adapt to this position, but by the end of the season he was playing brilliantly. Valverde has other options too, though. What would it mean for the city of Bilbao and for Athletic to play in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League once again?

Guerrero: It would be reward for sticking with their philosophy, reward for believing in what they are doing. The club are making huge strides. Above all, qualifying will make the young lads in the academy believe that you can go very far by embracing this philosophy. In recent years the club have competed in finals and that's the best way for the youngsters to believe they can also achieve big things.