Aritz Aduriz picked up the ball on the edge of the area, spun and sent a low shot past Pau López into the bottom corner of the goal. Just fewer than 35,000 people had filled the Power8 Stadium, creating Espanyol’s largest attendance of the season, and they had come to party. Valencia and Sevilla had already been laid to rest in the Copa del Rey, and this was the night the hosts were supposed to advance to face city rival Barcelona — 58 years after the first and only all-Catalan final.
However, Aduriz’s strike made him the party-pooper. Athletic Club added a second goal before the break, leaving the celebrations instead to the club’s small pocket of fans tucked in the corner of Espanyol’s Cornella-El Prat base. As the clock approached midnight on a chilly evening in the Catalan capital, there was at last a flicker of light for Ernesto Valverde’s side: A cup final against Barça.
Valverde took the reins at the Bilbao club last season and proved the perfect antidote to Marcelo Bielsa. After initial success under the mad Chilean professor, Athletic had wilted under his eccentric demands. Valverde restored order. He converted a direct and exciting style of play into results, leading the club into the Champions League via a fourth place finish in La Liga.
Now that all seems so long ago. Athletic keeled over in the group stages of Europe’s elite competition and was recently knocked out of its uglier sibling, the Europa League, by Italian side Torino. All the while the team has been guilty of underperforming and underachieving in league, although recent wins have maneuvered them back into the top half of the table.
All the grayness that has built up this season has been expunged by qualification for the Copa del Rey final, though. That it was Aduriz who helped them there strikes a chord with the club’s good old days.
Photo: Alex Caparros/Getty Images.
Formed in 1898, Athletic is rich in history. It’s won the top flight on eight occasions, but it’s in the cup where the club has truly excelled. Excluding Barça (26), no side has won the King’s Cup more times than Athletic (23), and this year’s final will be a familiar sight. It is the eighth meeting between the two clubs at the last hurdle and the third since 2009. Both sides will be appearing in their 37th final.
But if you dig below the honors, there is a lot more history to Athletic than merely titles, and Aduriz is becoming part of it. If he can star in the club’s first Copa del Rey win since 1984, Aduriz might even earn himself a chapter.
He may have turned 34 in February, but without him to lead the line, the Basque club would be a lot further down Spain’s Primera Division standings. Valverde’s job may even have been called into question. Aduriz has scored 17 of the club’s 45 goals this season, and he’s now scored 53 times since returning to the club two and a half years ago.
In this third stint with the club, Aduriz is joining Athletic royalty, with two of the most important goal scorers in the history of Spanish soccer having played for the club. Rafael Moreno, better known as Pichichi, was so prolific they named the trophy for the league’s best marksman after him. Another former Athletic forward, Telmo Zarra, was the league’s all-time leading scorer before being surpassed by Lionel Messi earlier this season.
Plenty of other No. 9s have whipped up a frenzy at San Mamés down the years. José Luis Panizo and Piru Gaínza shimmered in the 1940s and `50s; Ruiz Bazán Dani and Manu Sarabia sparkled in the` 70s and` 80s; Ismael Urzaiz twinkled in the `90s; and Fernando Llorente’s dashing good looks melted hearts more recently.
That’s not even considering other attacking players, such as Txetxu Rojo, Julen Guerrero and Joseba Etxeberria, who also contributed heaps of goals. Those are just the out-and-out, no nonsense center forwards.
Given Athletic’s self-imposed handicap, that these goal scorers keep on scoring is notable. Athletic prides itself on only signing players from the Basque Country region of northern Spain. How those boundaries may or may not have mildly diluted over the years is another article, but the policy means the club can’t just pop out to its local Paris Saint-Germain store and stick Edinson Cavani on its credit card.
It’s an admirable stance, especially in modern soccer, and is highlighted by the fact their record signing, 12 million euros for Roberto Rios, was made in 1997.
Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images.
Which brings us back to Aduriz, the latest bustling forward in a long line of bustling forwards, who at the third time of being asked has been able to take up the mantle of being the main man. Unfortunately, time still waits for no man, and his the miles he’s put on during his 16-year career surely linger at the back of Athletic’s mind.
Midfielder Mikel Rico has said he’ll build a statue of Aduriz if he scores the vital goals in May’s against Barça, but the worry is where the goals come from next season, or the season after. Aduriz may be close to the form of his life right now, carrying an otherwise blunt Athletic front line for the majority of the time, but he’s not going to be able to babysit for much longer.
Names like Pichichi and Zarra mean the club has a proud tradition to uphold, and the search for an heir will likely have to be within. Guillermo is one young player who they hope can step up and Iñaki Williams, the first black player to ever score for the club, another, although neither could be considered a dead certainty.
Fortunately, Athletic has Aduriz for now, and first up on the agenda is beating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final later this year. Barça will start as a heavy favorite, obviously, but it shouldn’t underestimate the legend of the Athletic Club forward.