Early Doors

The greatest club in the world?

Early Doors

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It would take the hardest of hearts not to find Athletic Bilbao's extraordinary win over Manchester United just a little bit inspiring.

Not because of Schadenfreude (though that is a perfectly acceptable form of joy) but because Athletic are a truly remarkable club - a dying breed somehow thriving in the modern world.

As everyone knows, Athletic only use players from the Basque Country, which - to put it mildly - puts them at something of a competitive disadvantage.

As well as being the go-to-reference point for areas of rainforest that are cut down, Wales offers a handy (if simplistic) comparison to the Basque Country.

They are very similar to Wales in size (20,000km2), population (3,000,000) and culture (Early Doors has a Basque friend called R(h)odri).

And yet despite this self-imposed restriction, Athletic have never been relegated from the Spanish top flight, won eight Liga titles and 23 Copa del Reys (should that be Copas del Rey? Maybe. Who cares?).

Granted, the idea of fielding local players was nothing out of the ordinary in the days when Celtic's team of Glaswegians could win the European Cup - but nowadays?

Where most top clubs have a global scouting network - Athletic restrict themselves to 0.04 per cent of the world's population.

Obligatory caveat: Athletic have been accused of a) Compromising their rules to allow non-Basques schooled in the area, and b) Using strong-arm tactics to prise players from other Basque clubs.

To which ED says; a) It's their rule, they can bend it if they want, and b) Their talent pool is small enough, of course they're going to go aggressively after players.

What's more, they have Real Sociedad and Osasuna nearby also promoting local players, while the best Basque players (Xabi Alonso and Mikel Arteta, neither from Athletic) leave the region.

It's like Swansea having to field an all-Welsh team, only they can't have Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey or Craig Bellamy, while Cardiff are attempting something similar down the road. And never getting relegated.

Given these restrictions, it is incredible that they are fifth in La Liga, and capable of playing so thrillingly at Old Trafford.

Take the fantastic Fernando Llorente, who is expected to leave the club this summer (probably for Real Madrid).

What does the shortlist of possible replacements look like? Well, short.

In fact, the only half-decent Basque striker not already on the books is Aritz Aduriz, a 31-year-old former Athletic man currently at Valencia. That's the best-case scenario.

The homegrown policy has never applied to managers - the club's early years featured several English gaffers including the gloriously-named Billy Barnes, Henry John Bagge and, er, Howard Kendall.

The current coach is Marcelo Bielsa, whose innovative tactics have made him something of a bloggers' darling.

But it wasn't just the nerds swooning as his side tore thrillingly into United last night.

At 1-1 away to Manchester United, some would park the bus and take their chances at home.

Not Bielsa. Maybe he had seen umpteen sides get men behind the ball at Old Trafford and come unstuck. Or maybe he just smelt blood and decided to go for it.

Whatever, Athletic's second-half display must rank among the most fearlessly ambitious away performances the stadium has ever seen.

A shell-shocked United slumped to a defeat that would have been far worse if not for some brilliant David De Gea saves and a silly late penalty conceded by Oscar de Marcos.

United once boasted a 40-year unbeaten home record in Europe, but they have won just one out of five home matches this season against teams not given a prayer when they arrived at the Theatre of Dreams.

When City and United dropped into the Europa League, the unspoken assumption was that only the draw could prevent them meeting in the final.

Between them, they have now lost three games out of six, and there is a real chance no English side will reach the last eight of any European competition.

It should obviously come as no surprise that there are more than two-dozen useful football teams out there, but the scale of United's struggles is nonetheless surprising.

Those Thursday nights on Channel Five are compelling viewing - even if not for the reason we anticipated.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "If people want to say I'm diving then they can, but I'm trying to get out of the way and save myself, save my career if you like ... You can see why people say you're diving but I'd rather get out of the way than get hurt, that's what it is. It's football, a contact sport, things do happen and you've got to try to be clever with it. I'm more likely to try to get out of the way and not get hurt, rather than get hurt. I tend not to dive." Gareth Bale - not diving, just saving defenders the bother of fouling him.

FOREIGN VIEW: Werder Bremen striker Marko Arnautovic will be out for at least six weeks after tearing a ligament in his right knee while playing with his dog.

"Marko has informed us of this incident," said coach Thomas Schaaf. "This is frustrating as we are now with one option less (in attack) for the coming weeks."

Arnautovic, who twisted his knee when his foot got stuck in the grass, had already gone for treatment, with the team doctor estimating that the Austria international would be missing for at least six weeks.

Werder, who host Hanover 96 on Sunday, are in the hunt for a European spot and lie in sixth place in the Bundesliga with 36 points.

COMING UP: As ever, we enter full weekend preview mode - we'll be hearing from Paul Parker and Jim White, plus there's a Fantasy Football chat and video preview of the weekend's Premier League games. It's all right here.

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