In the midst of an entertaining title race between three of Spain's biggest clubs, it's easy to forget there are other fascinating stories playing out. Such is the case this season with Athletic Bilbao, a team that needed a late surge last year to avoid relegation, but are now poised to claim fourth place and a Champions League spot.
Things could have been much worse for Athletic Club Bilbao at the close of the 2012/13 season. Despite a tumultuous campaign filled with poor play, distractions and the eventual departure of head coach Marcelo Bielsa, the proud Basque Country club avoided relegation with a late season surge, finishing in 12th place. There were still serious issues to be dealt with in the offseason though; Athletic was left shaken and woozy, desperately trying to get the license plate of the bus that had just run them over.
After trips to the Copa del Rey and Europa League finals in 2011/12, there had been high hopes for Athletic that season. Maybe they would challenge for their ninth title, or maybe they could again return to a cup final and hoist their first trophy since a double in 1983/84. It took just two games for those dreams to deflate as things quickly fell to pieces. Athletic opened with two straight loses by a combined scoreline of 9-3, and while they managed to regain some footing with points from their next three matches, they never truly recovered, eventually losing both Bielsa and star striker Fernando Llorente.
It was a disaster.
And so during the offseason changes were made. Bielsa was replaced by Ernesto Valverde, a former Athletic player and manager, who had bounced between Spain and Greece since leaving Athletic in 2005. Valverde may not have been the most flashy hire, but he was a known quantity, a coach with success at various clubs, and more importantly, a man that understood the unique restraints that Los Leones work under.
The club's self-created policy of developing only young Basque players and only signing talented Basque players from other clubs restricts the talent pool from which their managers are allowed to recruit. Valverde, having played and coached at the club before, understood that policy and in a time of need, it's often best to find a leader who is both competent and comfortable with the situation.
The decision to appoint him has paid of handsomely for Athletic Bilbao this season. With 11 rounds left to play, Los Leones are sitting proudly in 4th place, currently seven points clear of Villarreal in fifth (Real Sociedad could pass Villarreal and close within five points with a defeat of Rayo Vallecano on Monday). Athletic missed a chance to expand their lead over the weekend, drawing 1-1 away against Valencia, but they're still in a position of power in the race for the Champions League.
Valverde has given Athletic their pride back, replacing the manic, though often entertaining, style of Marcelo Bielsa, with a more reserved system that has gotten results. Veteran Aritz Aduriz, a player Bielsa had not even wanted but was signed the previous summer anyway, leads the team with 10 goals. 24-year-old Ibai Gomez, having a breakout season, is close behind with eight. The defense has vastly improved as well, moving from a -21 goal differential last season to +19 so far this year.
Perhaps even more importantly, Athletic turned their newly-opened version of the San Mamés into a veritable fortress. The team has only lost once at home in league play -- 2-1 to Espanyol -- managing to defeat Barcelona and draw Real Madrid in their new, still unfinished home.
Even the most cynical Athletic supporter has to be pleased with the team's recovery. While the team could realistically be in the title race if not for their poor road record -- 5-3-5 with an even goal differential -- you only need to think back to late last season when Athletic spent a couple weeks on the verge of dropping into the relegation zone.
Whatever happens in the season's final 11 matches, it's been a successful turnaround for Athletic Bilbao. Considering where they were less than a year ago, it's hard to imagine anyone who loves the club not to have a smile of their face.