Athletic Club coach Marcelo Bielsa hailed the "healing power of football" after May's UEFA Europa League runners-up all but sealed a place in this season's group stage with a 6-0 play-off first-leg victory at home to HJK Helsinki.
Bruised by the disappointment of a 5-3 opening-day Liga loss against Real Betis Balompié on Sunday, when they battled back from three down at San Mamés to no avail, Los Leones provided the perfect response. Two goals apiece from Aritz Aduriz and Markel Susaeta and strikes for Iñigo Pérez and Andoni Iraola secured their biggest home win in UEFA competition, leaving HJK's hopes in tatters.
"You can never assume that any tie of this type is done and dusted, but I can't deny that we have opened up a significant advantage," the ever understated Bielsa concluded. "When the scoreline is so one-sided you tend to overlook what exactly is entailed in cancelling out your opponent but I have to say that we defended and attacked very well against HJK."
Athletic enjoyed a memorable campaign in this competition last term, defeating the likes of Paris Saint-Germain FC, Manchester United FC and FC Schalke 04 before losing to Club Atlético de Madrid in the Bucharest showpiece. The road to Amsterdam will be just as long and treacherous but the early signs are good.
"There were notable moves and moments – collectively as well as individually it was a strong performance. I particularly liked [midfielder] Carlos Gurpegi, who always looked to nullify dangerous situations while not making any errors. [Forward] Aduriz was also very influential in our play. Winning has a very important healing power in football."
After registering his first goals since a summer return to Athletic from Valencia CF, Aduriz said he was delighted the team managed to execute their pre-match plan. "We were looking to finish off the tie at home and after this result we can say we are a lot closer to qualifying for the group stage now," the 31-year-old said.
"There is another game to play but we are happy with our first-leg performance. We put in an enormous effort."
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