|David Cartlidge Twitter: @davidjaca|
"If he scores a few goals for us in the Copa del Rey Final, I will build a statue of him at San Mames myself." said Mikel Rico on Thursday evening.
He was of course talking about Aritz Aduriz, author of 17 goals this season. 17 of which, make up for 43 of Athletic's goals in total this season. It's not a statue the club needs however, it's a fountain of youth.
Despite turning 34 last month, Aduriz is in the form of his life. He's more energetic than ever, presses opponents with all the tenacity of a teenager and is as lethal as he's ever been in the penalty area. It's his best season as a professional in terms of goalscoring, eclipsing his previous efforts at both Real Mallorca and Valencia.
It was no surprise then when Aduriz set the path last night that saw Athletic walk up to their 37th Copa del Rey Final. Only Real Madrid boast more with 39. An historic moment in a competition they are rather fond of. When they get there, they do well too. With 23 wins, only Barcelona can claim more triumphs. Keep in mind their Basque only policy, and having also never been relegated from La Liga in their history, it really does make the achievement seem even more profound.
As the fans sung their songs in Euskara and held their Ikurriña flags in the cold Barcelona night, it gave you a renewed sense of feeling about this club. The substance, the meaning. One club in Barcelona has the motto of being more than a club but if one were true standard bearers of that, then it would be Athletic. Yes, there is a sponsor on the shirt now, and the margins regarding restrictions on Basque players have been skewed, but it takes nothing away from the tradition and decorum of this club.
Athletic needed this too, even more than Barca with their high demands of success. After the euphoria of last season and qualifying for the Champions League, in some style too, the hysteria was soon quelled as things got underway in 2014-2015. The European campaign was nothing short of a disaster as Athletic were swept out of the competition, before a Europa League campaign was abruptly ended by Torino before it really started.
The mental and physical impact of European football took its toll quickly. With that small squad, despite it's talent, things were made ever more difficult for Ernesto Valverde. Losing Ander Herrera to Manchester United has been severe blow too.
There was no real replacement, and it forced Valverde to change approach. In the process Athletic have lost their verve that made them so expansive last term. They are more cautious, lack intensity and give up more space. They look less of a unit. At times his changes have made little sense, and seemed desperate.
2 - Athletic have scored their two goals against Espanyol from just two shots on target. Dynamite.— OptaJose (@OptaJose) March 4, 2015
For prolonged spells last night however they looked like the team of last term. In fact, for the first 20-30 minutes, it could be argued Athletic played some of their best football this season. The pressing from the front was there, they shifted the ball wide and through midfield with purpose, and behind the ball remained compact, organised. Valverde even got back his old magic. Andoni Iraola, the full-back, was deployed in an interior role to great success.
Leading the charge however was Aduriz, and with his presence in attack there always remains hope despite the bleak season overall. Athletic know even if they play badly, a cross into the area has a good chance of being met by his head.
Athletic will be around for a long time after Aduriz retires, but they must not forget the era in which he was prolific.
In the annuls of their history many great strikers have worn the red and white stripes, Aduriz even without a Copa del Rey winners medal should be amongst them.