Athletic Club’s 3-2 victory over Panathinaikos on Thursday night is already a game of the year candidate. The Lions were down 2-0 with twenty minutes left and proceeded to mount an exciting comeback which took all of six minutes. From worry to euphoria this match had it all and it was quite the rollercoaster ride. There was beauty and passion, but there was also disgust and disappointment. Let’s take a look at the winners and losers from the thrilling Europa League clash.
Winner – Aritz Aduriz
We start with the easy choice here in striker Aritz Aduriz. The 36-year-old scored Athletic’s first goal in the way that only he can. Iker Muniain sent in a cross to the far corner and Aduriz rose above everyone else and, with perfect power and placement, beat the keeper. Not only did the header give the Lions a vital away goal, it breathed new life into the players which spurred them on to be able to complete the historic comeback in thrilling fashion.
Aduriz also scored the third goal for Athletic after Iñaki Williams won a penalty. He sent the keeper the wrong way and chipped his shot straight down the center of the goal which proved to be the winner. Apart from his goals, Aduriz actually played a key role in Athletic’s defending as well. Twice he cleared the ball out of his own box before the Greeks could put a shot on goal and his physicality when tracking back added some muscle to the middle of the pitch. The striker may be known for his goals but he is always doing so much more than can go unseen at time. Iker Muniain could also be listed as a winner due to his great performance, but his stellar play has become expected at this point
Loser – Iñigo Lekue
Iñigo Lekue was the only surprise in the starting lineup, getting the nod over Iñaki Williams and Markel Susaeta. It isn’t known whether or not Kuko Ziganda had a tactical plan for him or not, but regardless he was going to be watched closely. With two great players sitting on the bench Lekue needed to have a great showing, but he didn’t. That isn’t to say that Lekue had a bad game, he just didn’t have a great game which is what you would hope for when choosing a player over Williams.
By halftime fans were calling for Iñaki to be put in the game and once he came on the entire match changed in complexity. Many were left wondering what would have happened if he would have started, and with good reason. This was the perfect chance for Lekue to show his quality and earn more minutes, but to do that he needed to stand out. The 24-year-old had an average performance, but could have done so much more with this opportunity.
Winner – Mikel San Jose
I know what you may be thinking. Why is Mikel San Jose a winner when he started on the bench again? It’s true, Kuko Ziganda has chosen Mikel Vesga over San Jose for the lineup so far this season which is a step down for a player who was once an undisputed starter. San Jose knows that his place in the team isn’t guaranteed and that he needs to make the most of every chance he gets. Well, that is exactly what he did in Thursday’s win after he came on for Beñat in the 77th minute.
When San Jose made his entrance the Lions were ahead and he was tasked with helping to keep the lead for the final 15 minutes. During that time he constantly won back possession and showed why he was once the first choice. His presence in the midfield was felt and he did a great job of cutting out the passing lanes for Panathinaikos which stopped several attacks before they could even start. Until he came into the game there was clearly a missing defensive element in the midfield and San Jose was able to show that he fits that role perfectly. If he continues to play like this when called upon he could convince Ziganda to put him back in the starting lineup.
Loser – Mikel Vesga
One of the reasons that Mikel San Jose stood out so much once he came on is because he did the one thing that Mikel Vesga struggled to do in the first 75 minutes of the game – provide coverage for the defense. When Vesga was passing and going forward he looked strong and capable, but he lacked the ability to shut down Panathinaikos’ movement in the midfield. Sure the 24-year-old is a better athlete than San Jose, but his positional awareness to break up passes and win tackles just isn’t the same.
Kuko Ziganda has chosen to bring Vesga into the starting lineup because he can add a new dimension to the passing game that San Jose cannot. He is a much more creative player, but he still needs to have a strong defensive side of his game as well. Understandably, Vesga is still learning his new role and building a partnership with Beñat, but fans will be hoping for better performances moving forward. There is no question that Vesga can become a very important part of the system, but games like these can also show the shortcomings that he needs to improve on.
Winner – Athleticzales
Thursday’s game was a rollercoaster of emotions. At the very beginning it was all Athletic with hopes of a strong performance on the road, which was a rare occurrence the last few years. That quickly changed when Panathinaikos scored and then doubled their lead in the second half. Fans began to worry whether or not the Lions would even make it to the group stage, which is still no guarantee, and dreams of a great season were already being questioned before the La Liga campaign has even officially begun.
Then Aritz Aduriz scored a beautiful header to bring all the hope back. Athletic had an away goal and fans could breathe a bit better. Two goals later and there was a Basque party going on in Athens, Greece. Athletic is notorious for their stubbornness and unwillingness to go down without a fight. Kuko Ziganda’s player refused to quit and mounted one of the most excited comebacks of recent memory. Six minutes changed everything, maybe the entire season, and for that the Athletic fans, who also never gave up, are the real winners.