Feliz Viernes to you, and welcome to Bilbao once more. Last week was patchy to say the least, but we’re still 5th in the league and in the semi-finals of the Copa Del Rey, so let’s hope this episode is a better one.
I watch a lot of British TV over here, and after watching Fred Sirieix’s new series ‘Remarkable Places to Eat’, I took a drive down the road to Tolosa to check out Casa Julian steak house, and I was not disappointed, so I may take the team there for our end of season bash.
Anyway, you’re not here for a food blog, so let’s get on with the football. Next up is a visit from Tenerife, who are 15th. We’ve already faced them three times this season, in the league and cup, and have done rather well, with 4-0 and 5-0 wins and a 2-2 draw, so recent history is on our side.
Their only absentee is striker Juanele, and for us, Histilloles is suspended, so Etxebe starts on the left wing. In preparation for the Barcelona game next week, I experiment by sacrificing a striker for an extra centre back, with Galdames coming in for Loinaz, leaving Laslandes as the loan front man.
It’s 2-0 at half time via a Guerrero brace, and we seem to be coping well defensively, but Laslandes is struggling on his own, with just two shots at goal and a rating of 6. I give him until the hour, and then switch him for Loinaz, which seems to pay immediate dividends as we score, only to see it disallowed, but I’m more than used to that by now. There’s a goalmouth scramble on 71, which we survive, but Tenerife pull one back 5 minutes later to set up a nervy ending, but we hold on.
We stay 5th, and a couple of results go our way as Betis draw and Atletico lose, so we’re just 5 points behind them both now and still have them both to play.
This is not what I need just before the Barcelona game, he has been in excellent form, but there is a plus side as Rios and Lizarazu both return, and the board are very pleased with my performance (for now).
So to the game that can make or break our season, the Copa Del Rey semi-final against Barcelona. I pray that we can just make it past them to give ourselves a shot at glory. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that Figo and Rivaldo are both out, but such is their strength in depth, it will probably make little difference.
I stay with the 3-3-1-2-1 formation from last match, but Histilloles comes in on the right for Perez. I’m expecting the normal barrage of shots from Barca, but it’s actually the other way around and although it’s goalless at half time, we shade the first half with three attempts at goal to Barca’s two.
But just as I’m praising the Boys and sending them out for the second half, Guardiola scores almost immediately after the restart. Tabuenka gets injured on 67 and is replaced by Mendieta. The formation seems to be working as we’re limiting Barca’s chances and creating a few of our own and we’re back in it on 75 as Guerrero despatches the penalty resulting from Vitor Baia’s sending off.
It’s a frantic end to the match and Alkorta looks to have won it for us in the last minute, only for substitute Alfonso to snatch a draw in the dying seconds. I’ll not complain as this is the first time during my tenure that we’ve taken anything from Barca, but at the same time the draw feels like a loss. Nevertheless, we have two precious away goals and hopefully we can avoid a battering in the return leg.
In keeping with the tradition of this blog, some bad news follows the good…
We’ve a couple of league matches to fit in before the second leg, starting with Bobby Robson’s 15th-placed Valencia. We tore them apart 4-1 last time, but our injury-ravaged squad isn’t exactly flying at the minute, so I’ll take a 1-0 win right now. Larrainzar, Tabuenka and Laslandes all come out through injury and suspension, and in come Rios, Mendieta and Loinaz.
We have a goal disallowed on 10 minutes. Loinaz quickly makes up for it, but Valencia quickly equalise. It’s 1-1 at half time and we’ve been by far the better side. We have a few more chances in the second half but continue to waste them, and Goran Vlaovic eventually delivers the killer blow on 71 to punish us for our woeful finishing. We’re clinging on to 5th spot as results again go our way, but we’re now 8 points off 4th.
Some quick news from Italy, where Juventus win the Serie A title, but on we go to the next match, a Monday night trip to Mallorca, who sit 14th in the table. We beat Hector Cúper’s men 3-1 at home, so fingers crossed for another win. Our only change is Larrainzar back in defence, with Rios going into defensive midfield and Garitano making way.
We’re 1-0 down in the blink of an eye through a Jovan Stankovic penalty, and the new formation doesn’t seem to be helping us in this match, so I switch back to the original, with Galdames moving to right back and Mendieta coming off for Urzaiz. This helps as Loinaz levels the scores. Histilloles then gets injured, so Arregui is on, and it’s level at half time.
Future Rangers legend Gabriel Amato puts the home side back in front shortly into the second half, and then Guerrero gets the chance to equalise from the spot, but misses. Just to rub salt in the wound, Amato gets his second 6 minutes later and it’s game over. You really do need a sense of humour in this game sometimes.
So another defeat, and we’re throwing matches away at the minute. We’ve been extremely unlucky with injuries, but I can only defend my players so much. That aside, we are still 5th, but Deportivo have a game in hand on us now. Histilloles’ injury news is confirmed, so that’s both my wingers and main striker out with long-term injuries.
Bad form and lots of injuries is never good, but even less so when we have to play Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey semi-final second leg. For them, Vitor Baia is suspended, Fernando and Ortega are cup-tied, Figo and Rivaldo are still injured, and Alfonso and Kiko are both surprisingly on the bench, so some might say their team selection gives us half a chance, but they still field a team of internationals.
Urzaiz is in for Histilloles, but other than that, it’s as you were from the Mallorca match. The task is simple, win or draw either 1-1 or 0-0 and we’re in the final. Unsurprisingly I stick with the 3-3-1-2-1 formation that proved effective in the first leg. I send the boys out and say a quick prayer to the footballing gods before making my way out. It’s a tense night, you can feel it in the air. Please, please, please just let us reach this final!
As expected, Barcelona take an early lead through Sonny Anderson, but we start fighting back, and Sergi gets sent off just before we equalise through Loinaz, to make it 1-1 at the break. As the minutes tick by in the second half, I’m getting more and more nervous because I know that one Barcelona goal will probably mean game over, but we are absolutely peppering their goal and just can’t find a way past their reserve keeper, Ruud Hesp.
It gets to the last 10 minutes and my heart is pounding. However, the Barcelona goal that I was so worried about never comes and we win on away goals, I cannot believe it. After shaking Louis Van Gaal’s hand, I go and congratulate each one of the boys. We finished the game with 7/13 shots on target, compared to Barca’s 6/8, and Hesp got man of the match, so that tells the unexpected story of the match.
This was a monumental effort from the Basque Boys tonight, and only Espanyol, who took care of Sporting Gijon in the other semi, stand between us and our first piece of silverware since I’ve been in charge.
In the league, we’ve slipped to 6th after Deportivo drew with Atletico and then beat Sociedad to go a point ahead of us, but we do have a game in hand on them.
More broken bones now, as Goikoetxea is out for a month with a broken arm. I think rather than increasing the stadium capacity this summer, the board should spend some cash on more beds for the treatment room. Speaking of the board, the cup run has undoubtedly provided a smokescreen for our poor league form, as they tell me once again tell me that they’re delighted with me.
So we now know that it’s Espanyol who we’ll face in the Copa Del Rey final, and we now have a dress rehearsal, as we visit them in the league. There might not be any silverware at stake in this match, but there are points and league places on the line as they’re just 2 points behind us, so we could still do with a win.
Espanyol have star striker Esnaider back, who missed our last meeting. I revert to the regular 2-3-1-2-2 formation, with Galdames coming in for suspended skipper Alkorta, who hands his armband to Rios. Tabuenka is the defender who makes way for the extra striker, as Laslandes returns to the side.
For the fourth game running we’re behind inside 20 minutes, and it looks like 2-0 shortly before half time as Esnaider tucks away a penalty, but he has to retake it and misses his second attempt, much to my relief. Urzaiz has found his opportunities limited this season, so I’m pleased for him when he scores the equaliser on 70 minutes, which is the last action of the match. Not the best result, but I’ll take it if it means they don’t gain on us. Deportivo won and are now 3 ahead of us again.
I’m forever researching to see if I can discover any more Basque Boys to sign, and I’m pleased to learn that Santi Ezquerro, who I’ve seen join Barcelona many times in this game, came through Osasuna’s ranks, so he goes straight on my shortlist, the only draw back being that he’s at Sociedad, who don’t like selling players to us, but we’ll see in the summer.
More news from abroad now, as Manchester United win the premiership.
Next up are Sporting Gijon, who are 9th, and their star man is future Chelsea man, Jesper Gronkjær, who despite having just 3 for shooting, has managed 14 goals this season. I decide to shake things up at the back. Alkorta returns from suspension, and I swap Mendieta and Larrazabal for Tabuenka and Lizarazu as the full backs. The defensive change seems to be working as we don’t go behind within the first 20 minutes as usual and are 1-0 up at half time through Etxebe.
It only takes Laslandes 4 second half minutes to double our lead, and then he gets his second on 68. Etxebe grabs his second and our fourth just before Tabuenka gets injured and is replaced by Mendieta. The aptly-named Bango then bangs one in for the visitors. Lizarazu gets his first Basque boys goal on 81, before the hosts get their second to make it 5-2. Etxebe then secures his second hat trick of the season in the dying seconds. His lack of goals this year may be down to Laslandes’ arrival and playing on the left wing, but it’s nice to see him scoring again.
That game sums up our season, free-flowing attacking, and defensive frailties all mixed together. Anyway, the win puts us 5th on goal difference. Betis lost to Barcelona, so we’re 5 behind them with a game in hand. Tabuenka is our for a couple of weeks with a damaged foot.
Sampdoria win the UEFA cup, beating Lyon 3-1 in the final, and poor old Bobby Gould gets his second sacking of this save as Bristol Rovers give him the boot.
We finish this week’s episode with an away trip to Atletico Madrid, who are 10 points ahead of us, but we have two games in hand on them. We’ve a fantastic record against them this season, having registered 2-0, 5-3 and 3-0 victories over them, so they’ll be keen to avenge those defeats.
Atleti are missing Paulinho Santos and Jose Caminero, but otherwise at full-strength, and our only change is Mendieta for Tabuenka. It’s an explosive start as expected, and after a few chances each way, we lead on 19 minutes through Loinaz. Atletico think they’ve equalised on 39, but it’s disallowed and I can’t help but smirk after all the goals we’ve had chalked off. It remains 1-0 until half time.
More blows are exchanged in the second half, and Juninho is proving a thorn in our side, but our defence is coping well. Laslandes doubles our lead, and an Atletico goal comes not long after from a corner, but it’s a second successive win and a valuable 3 points. I think this seldom-seen blue away kit must be lucky. We’re now a point behind Deportivo, and 4 clear of Espanyol, which is nice.
So that’s it for another week. Despite suffering a couple of recent defeats, we’re now unbeaten in four matches, so could we be hitting form just at the right time? Tune in next week for the finale of the league season and the Copa Del Rey final, Adios!