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Bielsa puts wind into Athletic sails

Marcelo Bielsa's particular brand of genius has taken Athletic Club to the brink of a first trophy in 28 years as they take on Club Atlético de Madrid in the UEFA Europa League final.

Marcelo Bielsa has re-invigorated Athletic Club
Marcelo Bielsa has re-invigorated Athletic Club ©Getty Images

Marcelo Bielsa does not come across as a man likely to sail off into the sunset, but if Athletic Club beat Club Atlético de Madrid in Wednesday's UEFA Europa League final he just might.

There is a barge docked in Bilbao which provides a sad reminder of Athletic's recent lack of success – their gabarra. Every so often it gets a fresh coat of deep blue paint, the tyres that soften its sides are renewed, the red and white skirts are cleaned and cared for. It is kept in a state of perpetuity; it rises and falls with the tide but ultimately it never moves. Like a bride who refuses to remove her gown in the hope that, finally, her fiancée will turn up – she has waited 28 years.

The gabarra is Athletic's celebration platform, a 25-metre long vessel that players and staff cram onto for a victory cruise whenever they secure new treasures. It drew thousands to the banks of the Ibaizabal river in 1984 after the league and cup double, before returning to its mooring; how suffocatingly tight those binds have seemed since. Bielsa, though, has loosened the ties. Now, his uninhibited brand of football has given the side two shots at casting them off completely.

The Copa del Rey final against FC Barcelona on 25 May awaits but first up is Atlético. "We need to play our natural game and make use of our strengths, the best guarantee of winning," Bielsa said on Tuesday. "It's a final and emotions, mine included, are intensified. But the important thing is how to transfer these special things into the game itself." What emotion is intensified for the Argentinian is hard to gauge – not once did he look at the massed ranks before him, not once did his slow monotone waver.

Yet Bielsa has overseen a revolution at Athletic since dropping anchor last July, instilling a now instantly recognisable intensity; they defend as a team, they attack as a team – and they do both at pace. It has been his trademark since making his name at CA Newell's Old Boys with youngsters including Gabriel Batistuta and Mauricio Pochettino over two decades ago. Yet in the UEFA Europa League the likes of Manchester United FC and FC Schalke 04, and their wily coaches, simply had no answer as they ran aground.

Athletic initially struggled to assimilate the new philosophy, but since then it has been a steady (if not always consistent) rise. The Loco label Bielsa routinely carries is beginning to peel off. As he has said, "a man with new ideas is mad until he succeeds". The precocious Iker Muniain is a committed disciple, saying that over the past ten months, he and his team-mates "have been taught things that we were missing." Such affirmation is rare, especially for a coach with as much passion for his training ground whistle and five-hour video sessions as this particular 56-year-old.

Bielsa practises what he preaches, and it is often him turning off the lights at Athletic's Lezama training ground in the early hours. It is partly why, after Joaquín Caparrós departed, Athletic turned to him, hypnotised by the kaleidoscope of colours on the spreadsheets he revealed at his interview, analysing their Liga games last term. All 38 of them. Brilliant or mad? It is a thin line, but if that gabarra sets sail over the next few weeks, thousands in Bilbao will not care.

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