Real Madrid hold fond memories of the old San Mames stadium. On May 2, 2012, Jose Mourinho’s side made the journey north armed with a simple equation: beat Athletic in the Week 20 fixture, rescheduled because of a players’ strike on the opening day of the season, and the title would return to the Bernabeu for the first time since 2007-08.
Goals from Gonzalo Higuain, Mesut Ozil and Cristiano Ronaldo eventually sealed the game, much to the displeasure of Lions fans in the crumbling old ground. Athletic had promised to prevent Real from celebrating a Liga title on their turf. The scene of the desecration would not last much longer as the ancient Catedral was pulled down at the end of the following season to be replaced by the glistening new San Mames, a stone’s throw away.
The transition was smooth. Ernesto Valverde had returned to the club in June 2013 and would lead Athletic to the Champions League in his first season, the Copa del Rey final in his second and a first trophy in three decades, the 2015 Spanish Super Cup, at the start of his third. Athletic fans were even afforded the schadenfreude of seeing Ronaldo sent off on his first visit to the new ground after the Portuguese’s bras d’honneur during Real’s title triumph in their former home.
But Valverde is increasingly being viewed as the glue that held the whole together. Athletic this season have been as solid as the old San Mames’ brickwork, despite Jose Angel Ziganda inheriting much the same squad Valverde had worked to such good effect. Athletic have rescued their Europa League campaign and need only avoid defeat in their final game away at Zorya Luhansk to reach the knockout stages. The Lions may need to win UEFA’s ugly sister tournament to compete on the continent next season with Ziganda’s side 16th in the league and out of the Copa del Rey.
Only the incompetence of Malaga, Alaves and Las Palmas are assurances of Athletic maintaining their status as one of only three clubs never to have been relegated from the Spanish top flight. Three wins in 13 is Ziganda’s return so far. The former striker spent six years at Bilbao Athletic before moving into the big chair and knows the players well. That is all that stands between Ziganda and the door, which cracked open a little wider after the disastrous Copa defeat to third-tier Formentera on Wednesday.
Ziganda’s old teammate Josu Urrutia, now Athletic’s president, will keep the faith for a few more weeks, but season-ticket holders should be concerned by where he left both Osasuna and Xerez in his previous Primera Division managerial jobs.
Zinedine Zidane can allow himself a wry smile ahead of Saturday’s game. There has been no genuine threat to the Frenchman’s job security, but Real’s title defence has been far from convincing. Last weekend’s results reduced Barcelona’s advantage to single figures and the gap to Valencia to four points, but fourth is not where Real fans enjoy seeing their team. Zidane, like Ziganda, has had to contend with injuries and neither coach did considerable business in the summer.
In Ziganda’s case, eligibility constraints at San Mames are a handy stick to deflect a media beating. Zidane has already come under fire for his preseason trading, which saw experienced heads leave and younger players come in. The double-header against Fuenlabrada in the Copa did little to paint his Plan B in more reassuring colours.
Gareth Bale, who made a game-changing cameo in the second leg, will fit the football cliche bill of “new signing” if and when he regains full fitness, and he showed on Tuesday that he still has plenty to offer the team. Unfortunately for Zidane, he is likely to be unavailable after tweaking his troublesome calf again. Marco Asensio remains out with a muscle injury, but Zidane should be able to beef up his defence with captain Sergio Ramos, who has missed the last three games with a fractured nose, and Nacho, who was suspended for the victory over Malaga that highlighted the importance of both to the Real manager.
Ziganda faces selection problems with Aymeric Laporte suspended and Oscar de Marcos a doubt. First-choice keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, who has been heavily linked with a move to the Bernabeu in recent weeks, trained on Thursday as he seeks to recover from a sprained ankle in time to face Madrid.
The Athletic boss’ fate will not be decided on Saturday, but a stirring performance against the champions could prove the catalyst for a Liga revival. Lions fans will be only too happy to get behind their side and to make Ronaldo’s evening as uncomfortable as possible as the Real forward seeks his first goal in the new San Mames. When Madrid visit Bilbao, all that matters are the 90 minutes. Zidane’s side, who have won twice in four visits since Athletic’s move and each of those by a single goal, can expect a tough game.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.