Marcelino’s Athletic Club eyeing a historic cup feat

San Mames empty
It's Basque derby weekend in LaLiga.

In years to come, the following could be a good pub quiz question: which Spanish coach won three Copa del Reys in a row but only managed during two of those seasons? 

The coach in question is Marcelino García Toral and he is looking to win two Copa del Reys this season having recently replaced Gaizka Garitano at Athletic Club.

But to do so he still has a lot of work to do. 

The Asturian’s first challenge will be to defeat Levante over two-legs in order to reach this season’s final which will be played on April 17th. The semi-final tie commences at San Mames this evening

Just two weeks before this year’s final, last year’s Covid-delayed final between Athletic and Real Sociedad will also be played. 

Both games will be disputed in Seville, the city of Marcelino’s previous cup win in the 2018/19 season in which he guided Valencia to victory against Barcelona at Real Betis’ Estadio Benito Villarmarín.  

And yet, despite all of this potential cup success for Marcelino, Athletic are not a club which has achieved much over the last few decades. Whilst they, alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona, have never been relegated from the Spanish top-flight, it’s true that they have not had much to shout about in recent years on the pitch. 

2010-2014: An era of great promise, but ultimately no trophies

In 2012, the current Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa took the Lions to a Europa League and Copa del Rey final. One of the true highlights of the period was when he masterminded a two-legged victory over Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Bielsa’s Bilbao were athletic and determined, playing great football. 

They also had real quality in the team, ranging from Fernando Llorente, Ander Herrera and Javí Martinez to the youthful talent of Iker Muniain. 

Whilst Athletic would ultimately lose both the Copa del Rey and Europa League finals, this season was part of the club’s most recent golden period which did not end when the Argentine manager left the club. 

Indeed, a couple of seasons later, in 2013/14, Ernesto Valverde guided the Basque side to the 4th and final Champions League spot, something Bielsa was unable to achieve. The following year would be the first time that the Lions had taken part in the Champions League since the 1998/99 season. 

Since then though, Athletic have struggled to impose themselves on Spanish football, despite moving into a stunning new stadium which is considered one of the most beautiful in Spain. While their Supercopa triumph in 2015/16 ended a 31 year wait for a trophy, even the goalscoring heroics of Aritz Aduriz couldn’t ultimately mask the reality that the decline had already begun.

Where did it go wrong?

Indeed, as the below chart shows, Athletic Club’s record in LaLiga has been an inconsistent one in the six seasons since their 4th place finish. 

Athletic Club record

On the one hand, this is to be expected. The four highest transfer fees that they have ever received have all occurred since 2013. Kepa to Chelsea, Aymeric Laporte to Man City, Javi Martínez to Bayern Munich and Ander Herrera to Manchester United. 

It would be harsh to say that the three seasons between 2014 and 2017 were awful for the club, especially when you consider that the likes of Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal, Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo were also all vying for a European spot. However the last three campaigns have certainly been underwhelming, as was the start to this one. 

And this is despite having a good crop of players to choose from. 

The current squad

Indeed, in spite of Athletic’s predicament, they do possess a strong squad and have done for several seasons. 

Currently, they have a team that includes goalkeeper Unai Simón, centre-half Iñigo Martínez and winger/striker Iñaki Williams. All three of which could well feature in Spain’s Euro 2021 squad. 

When they sold Kepa to Chelsea for a record fee of €80 million in 2018, people thought he would be difficult to replace. After all, Athletic famously only have players from the Basque country. 

However the club was lucky to have Unai Simon waiting in the wings. And with the contrasting fortunes that both shot stoppers have had over the last couple of seasons, the Lions need not have worried.  Also taking into account David De Gea’s poor form, many feel that Simon will be Spain’s first choice goalkeeper at this year’s European Championships.

Iñigo Martínez was signed from rivals Real Sociedad and adds solidity to the defence, whilst Inaki Williams is a raw, quick striker – in theory well suited to Marcelino’s counter-attacking style of play.

Aritz Aduriz only retired last season during the Covid pandemic, whilst former Atletico Madrid player Raúl García adds experience to the squad and has performed admirably as a striker over the past eighteen months, even though it is not his natural position.

Yuri Berchiche was signed from PSG in 2018 whilst current captain Iker Muniain and Oscar de Marcos were both at the club under Bielsa’s reign. 

Athletic, then, in theory have enough quality to challenge for the European spots. 

A poor start to the season

The club’s season began in terrible fashion after they lost five out of their first eight matches, including games against Cadiz, Real Valladolid and Osasuna.

Whilst their form picked up in a 2-1 victory over Sevilla and a 4-0 win against Real Betis in October and November, it wasn’t enough to save Gaizka Garitano from losing his job. 

The 1-0 defeat at home to rivals Real Sociedad on new year’s eve was the final straw, especially when considering the fact that the txuri urdin had enjoyed a brilliant start to the season. With the big all Basque Copa del Rey Final on the horizon, those factors took on extra significance. 

With Athletic losing matches and Real Sociedad fighting for a Champions League spot, something had to change. 

That something was the coach.

Marcelino at the helm

Marcelino, an experienced and largely successful coach in Spanish football, was appointed in order to maximise the true potential of the Athletic squad. 

He could not have wished for a better start. 

Within the first few weeks, he won the Spanish Super Cup as they beat Barcelona 3-2 in the final, having previously knocked out Real Madrid in the semi-final. 

Athletic’s 5-1 home win against Getafe would also have given the club’s passionate fanbase much encouragement, especially given a lack of goals had been a theme during Garitano’s period at the helm.

It is of course difficult to gauge the exact level of this squad and where Marcelino might take them after only a handful of games. But Marcelino has so far impressed, although he was perhaps fortunate to have been shooed into the job just before the Supercopa.

In the league, Athletic are currently in 11th place, although only five points off Real Betis in seventh, having played a game less. With more performances like the ones against Barcelona and Getafe, Marcelino could steer his new club to a European place.

However with all the teams vying for these positions, this will be no easy feat and the Copa del Rey could yet present a clearer path to Europe.

More cup glory under Marcelino?

Perhaps more significantly than that, winning one of Spain’s two major trophies again, for the first time since 1984, would be a significant milestone as the club aims to compete in the challenging environment of the 21st Century whilst holding on to its traditions.

Their two-legged semi-final starts tonight against Levante, and regardless of the result, they will still have last season’s Cup Final to play. 

If they were to win both competitions, Marcelino would have won three Copa del Rey trophies in a row whilst only managing for two seasons. 

There’s the answer to the potential pub quiz question. 

About James Felton 6 Articles
Multimedia journalist from Swansea. Cardiff University trained. Lover of La Liga. About to embark on a 3 month internship teaching English in Seville. Fluent Spanish speaker.