It was 26 minutes into the game between Athletic Club and Real Madrid when Mikel Rico received the ball deep in Madrid’s half. He looked to his left and spotted the run of Aritz Aduriz, who darted into the box. Rico curled a cross in, and Aduriz jumped above Pepe to meet the ball with his head, producing a sweet connection that sent the ball looping high above the sprawling Iker Casillas. Aduriz reeled away, and Athletic’s supporters were sent into delirium.
Aduriz’s goal was his 20th in all competitions this season, and gave Athletic their first win over Real since 2009. It was a hugely important goal, and one that marked the end of a particularly satisfying week for Athletic, having also made it through to the Copa del Rey final after beating Espanyol in midweek.
It has been a difficult season for Athletic. They began the campaign with high hopes when they beat Napoli to secure a place in the Champions League group stages, following a brilliant season in which they had finished fourth. Ernesto Valverde had taken over the previous year, replacing the madcap Marcelo Bielsa and installing an exciting style of play which got the San Mames roaring.
But this season Athletic have been unable to juggle the demands of European and domestic football. They wilted in the Champions League and were recently knocked out of the Europa League by Torino. In La Liga they have been lethargic and inefficient, and it is only thanks to recent results that they have made it back into the top half.
Enter Aduriz. Athletic’s Basque-only policy is well-known, and so it makes it even more special when a gem is unearthed. The 34-year old striker is in his third spell with the club and was a late developer, but has proved vital this season and could even find himself alongside the likes of Pichichi and Zarra in Athletic’s hall of fame if he continues. Were it not for him, Ernesto Valverde’s side would be languishing even more in La Liga. He is in the best form of his career, and has become the natural leader of this Athletic side since coming back from Valencia in 2012. As Valverde himself has said “In some games he shines and in others he suffers, but he always leads the line for us”.
Nowhere were his talismanic qualities more evident than at Espanyol in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey, where Aduriz scored the goal that sent Athletic on their way to a cup final against Barcelona, and which may have changed the Basque side’s season. It is a glimmer of hope for Los Leones in a season where there have been few positives.
At 34, it is doubtful that Aduriz will be able to lead the line for much longer, although there are a few potential heirs in the club’s ranks who could step up soon. Guillermo looks a reasonably promising player, while Iñaki Williams has already made headlines by becoming the first black player to score for the club, and has been in scintillating form recently. The future is bright for Athletic.
For the moment, however, Athletic are just grateful to have Aduriz, and he is not going anywhere anytime soon. It is hugely unlikely, but if Aduriz scores in the final of the Copa del Rey and Athletic are able to cause an upset, it would firmly establish him in the club’s history.