GAIZKA MENDIETA IS hoping Athletic Bilbao can claim their first silverware in 28 years this season.
Having failed to win a trophy since doing a league/cup double in 1984, Marcelo Bielsa’s side take a one-goal lead into tonight’s Europa League last 16 second leg with Manchester United after beating the Premier League champions 3-2 at Old Trafford last week.
And former Spain star Mendieta, who is a native of the Basque city and grew up there before leaving to join Castellon, has a huge amount of admiration for how Los Leones (The Lions) have taken the competiton by storm.
“I’m really impressed by what Marcelo Bielsa has done,” he told TheScore during a visit to Dublin yesterday. “It’s not been easy because the first couple of months in La Liga they struggled.
Bielsa has this Argetinian mentality about how the ball should be passed and looked after but Athletic Bilbao have always been known for direct and physical in a kind of English style.
“It took him awhile to get the players to understand him but he has been able to teach them how he wants the players to play and it is working great.”
United were unable to cope with Athletic’s pressing and passing game in the first leg and seeing off Alex Ferguson’s men tonight would be a major achievement for a club who have historically restricted themselves with a policy of only signing Basque players.
But with likes of Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain all thriving for club and country and a meeting with Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final scheduled for May 25, it looks to be the beginning of something special.
“I’ve always been proud at how Athletic have looked after their academy,” added self-confessed fan Mendieta.
They have never denied their origins and have put trust and confidence in young players, which has not been easy.”
As is always the case, Europe’s wealthiest teams will no doubt be eyeing up moves for their most influential players but if Bilbao can capture some silverware this season the former midfielder thinks they can keep hold of the core group.
“There was talk about Llorente going to Spurs but it seems like he will sign a new contract and I think the rest will stay. They’ve been there since they were kids and now being rewarded.
“They have not achieved anything yet but hopefully they will with the Spanish Cup and the Europa League.”
Gaizka Mendieta was in Dublin with the Euro 2012 trophy at an event hosted by Carslberg, the official beer to the Irish football team and UEFA Euro 2012. Visit the Carslberg football Facebook page.