BARCELONA (Reuters) - Athletic Bilbao enjoyed four years of stability and success under Ernesto Valverde but the coach’s departure to Barcelona last season has left the Basque club in freefall and floundering in all competitions.
Valverde secured European football in each of his four years with the club, who only field players with ties to the Basque country, as well as ending a 31-year wait for a trophy by winning the 2015 Spanish Super Cup.
Valverde has overseen a near perfect campaign with Barcelona, who lead the Liga standings by four points and are unbeaten in Europe and the league, while his true value to Athletic has been felt in the three months since his departure and their sudden decline under Jose Angel Ziganda.
Athletic are the fourth most successful team in Spanish football, with eight Liga titles and 23 King’s Cups to their name and they are the only side along with Real Madrid and Barcelona to never have been relegated from the top flight.
They were dumped out of the King’s Cup by third division Formentera on Wednesday on a rainswept night at a sparsely attended San Mames stadium and are floundering in the league, two places above the relegation zone amid a run of five games without a win.
Next up is the visit of Liga champions Real Madrid on Saturday.
Athletic’s 55,000 capacity San Mames stadium is renowned for its atmosphere but only 14,000 people turned up for Wednesday’s second leg, the lowest attendance since the stadium was built in 2013 and a sign of the little faith supporters have in the team.
Those present gasped in horror as Alvaro Muniz’s 96th-minute header gave tiny island side Formentera, who first entered the Cup three years ago, a 1-0 win to complete a shock 2-1 aggregate victory which sent Athletic out of the competition which they have won 23 times and reached the final on 39 occasions.
“It has been a tough night, with many things going through my head, the errors we made deprived me of sleep,” said forward Inaki Williams on Twitter on Thursday, describing a defeat that local newspaper El Correo called “a historic humiliation”.
“All we can do is look forward and work hard to get out of this situation, to club together like the big family we are, because together we are stronger.”
Midfielder Ander Iturraspe echoed those sentiments.
“This is very tough for us and we feel ashamed. We have to apologise to all the club’s supporters” he said. “We did not play a game worthy of this shirt and this badge.”
A banner calling for Ziganda to be sacked was spotted at the gates of the club’s Lezama training ground on Thursday, according to Spanish newspaper Marca, although the coach said after the Formentera game he was not fearing for his job.
“I fear very few things but I’m aware what football is like and the size of the setback we have suffered,” Ziganda said.
“We know how important this competition is and that we have messed up. This scar is going to remain for the rest of the year.”
Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond