The last time Athletic Club was in the city of Bucharest, they lost the 2012 Europa League final to Atletico Madrid. On Thursday they returned to the stadium that gave them so much heartache and players like Iker Muniain were even asking if it was destiny or a simple coincidence. The match started just how the Lions would have dreamed it. From the opening whistle they dominated possession, kept their opponents from creating chances, and scored the first goal in under 22 minutes. It was the perfect start, but it wouldn’t stay that way.
Dinamo brought on Rivaldinho after halftime and in under ten minutes he had leveled the score with a rocket from well outside the box. Iago Herrerin perhaps should have done better, but the wonder-strike brought the Romanian fans to their feet and their energy spurred on their team who didn’t allow Athletic to take the lead again. The game ended in a 1-1 draw which certainly felt uneventful, but not entirely disappointing. That being said, there is a lot to talk about after this one.
Before the game even began, Dinamo came out wearing shirts in support of Yeray. It was a very special touch and greatly appreciated. The fans and atmosphere was also incredible and deserves a lot of praise. That is exactly what the Europa League is all about. It is a shame that both clubs aren’t able to advance to the next round of the tournament.
Kuko Ziganda was finally able to oversee his first game as the Athletic Club manager. It was a day that he has been dreaming about for many years and afterwards he said, “I am happy to have coached my first game for Athletic; it has been a very nice week”. The players knew how much the game meant to Ziganda and were fired up from the start. Although he wasn’t able to begin his tenure with a victory, it was a good performance with a strong chance of advance.
While we are on the topic of firsts, raise your hand if you had Aymeric Laporte scoring the first goal of the season. That was sure unexpected but also wonderful to see. The defender was in solid form and having an entire preseason while fully healthy played a role in that. Meanwhile, Iker Muniain picked up right where he left off last season. The winger was constantly dribbling past defenders and causing problems. When he wasn’t running forward, he was usually on the ground after drawing a foul. This season has the makings of being Muniain’s best yet.
Ziganda’s system is not all that different from Ernesto Valverde’s from the past four years. The team still wants to control possession, attacking down the wings, and play the ball back into the middle. However, the new manager did spend the entire preseason utilizing Mikel Vesga alongside Beñat instead of Mikel San Jose. That trend continued on Thursday with San Jose on the bench. Breaking up the San Jose-Beñat pairing would have been seen as unbelievable last year, but Ziganda wants the midfield to be more dynamic and Vesga offers more passing options because he is a well-rounded player and not just defensively minded. Vesga and Beñat played very well together for the most part. There were moments where they were not on the same page, as is the case with any new partnership, but for their first official game together it was a strong showing.
With Vesga in the midfield, San Jose has featured only as a center-back this summer. It was odd not to see him start alongside Laporte, but Xabi Etxeita was given that role instead. The defense put in a strong performance and really aren’t at fault for the goal. Rivaldinho scored an amazing strike and sometimes you just have to accept when something incredible happens like that. In truth, Rivaldinho is the reason Athletic didn’t win. His addition in the second half changed the entire complexity of the game and his goal brought the stadium to life in a way that spurred Dinamo to completely take over the game for long stretched of the last 30 minutes. Athletic simply failed to adjust to his pace and dribbling behind the striker.
All in all it was a good showing for Athletic. It was clear that they had only played preseason games while Dinamo had already competed in two Romanian league matches. The fact that the Lions were much better from the very start is definitely encouraging, but playing on the road in the Europa League is never easy. Earning an away goal is a very big deal heading back to the San Mames. Athletic only lost two games at home all of last season, to Barcelona and Real Madrid, so they are expected to be very difficult to beat on Thursday.
Dinamo will bring everything they have and won’t be an easy opponent. They have already shown the ability to create chances and be dangerous on the counter. Athletic should have a game plan for Rivaldinho this time around, but it will still be a difficult task. Regardless, the Lions are in a pretty good place for the return leg and fans should be satisfied with the result. It wasn’t the best scoreline, but it certainly wasn’t the worst either. Athletic will now have the chance to book their place in the next round in front of their own fans and they wouldn’t have it any other way.