A goalless tie between Athletic Club and Sporting in the first leg of the Copa…
A goalless tie between Athletic Club and Sporting in the first leg of the Copa quarterfinals is why swords must be kept drawn in view of next week’s return match. The bad part will be playing in favourable conditions for the hosts, but, by not having conceded any goals in the first leg, any draw with goals would mean progression.
To sum up, Athletic Club played one of its worse games so far this season; with no set pace, ineffective and unable to guess combinations right and, despite it all, it completed its tenth consecutive unbeaten match and are still alive in the qualifying round. Ironically, the best occasion of the game came from the boots of Fernando Llorente in the minute 28, but his penalty shot went wide.
Unfortunately, Athletic Club soon saw how the power and drive of recent matches disappeared at a stroke when it was most expected in San Mamés; on the one hand due to their own deficiencies and, on the other, due to the merits of a rival who appears to have learned from their weaknesses in the Liga. The Asturian players stymied all the rojiblanco’s penetration routes and, a statistical curiosity, obtained the first draw of the current season in an official match. For the rojiblancos it was impossible to impose the normal high game pace and in the centerfield Sporting was almost always superior with a rather fake format of two pivots and an offensive midfielder, which is why yesterday’s tireless Orbaiz and Javi Martinez had difficulty with the reigning traffic. In short, that they positioned themselves better on the field, additionally supported by an advanced defence that could not be conveniently dealt with because counterattacking seemed a fantasy. Neither of the two teams created danger. Sporting was satisfied with seeing our players far from their goalie and any comparison with Athletic’s latest appearances in San Mamés was like comparing day and night.
For sample, the first rojiblanca approach with certain danger… in the minute18; when Llorente headed wide. The visitors took a bit longer, but then they did all they could, at least until the break. Their main firing power was Barral, who in the 22nd shot wide and in the minute 24 shot with all his might, but Llorente’s thigh got in the way. For a moment, the encounter was faithful to the Copa legend of having a first and second leg and in few minutes the match could have turned either way. Llorente was fouled, as had already happened in the Liga, which resulted in a penalty, ‘Of those that occur but are not called’, ‘ there are many of those each match’, etc…A wound that wants to be covered with the transpiring bandage that Llorente is protected. Anyway!
Even so, deceiving the goalie was not enough, because the shot went high and the effect was devastating, if the team’s game were not already worrisome. Athletic went into a sort of depression and Sporting, grown at times, played its better moments of the match, recovered more balls than ever and the sensation that they could score at any time was such that they only needed their nervous Preciado to come in and finish. And that is where the importance of having a stronger team than appeared lies, in being able to weather the storm and, in that task, the goalie also passed the test. Everything that came to him was either caught or deflected and that aspect, the defensive, would be all that could be rescued from the first leg of the quarterfinals. In the minute 29, he blocked a shot by Sastre; in the 32, he cleared a shot by Lora over the bar; in the 34, he deflected a ball by Diego Castro and in the 44, he parried off a strong shot by David Barral.
Not even the change of wings between Gabilondo and Susaeta brought air to a team condemned to long balls, but senseless at times and too long in others; as an example, only a combing by Llorente in the minute 43 made Sergio exercise.
45 minutes had been enough for the pre-match euphoria to weaken and, except for the logical exceptions existing between almost 40,000 spectators, from the stands it was perfectly understood that the qualifying round is played in two matches and the fact of not conceding made it possible for that small cut not to haemorrhage.
The second half was at least more balanced and Athletic suffered less, although each approach by Gijon was a sort of Sword of Damocles. Our team was short on strength, but despite it all Sporting only created one occasion in the minute 50, on a shot by Barral which Gorka Iraizoz saved.
Coach Joaquin Caparrós had already introduced David Lopez to substitute Gabilondo and before the hour of play Etxeberria replaced Susaeta, though the scenery was similar, since beyond the individual level of success of many players, the problem was collective. Without a spark it was almost impossible to light the fire, a task which the crowds insisted on until the end, even at the worse moments.
Our players did try, almost always high, since the combinations below the knee against Sporting were almost always an Asian luxury, either by precipitation, or by the excessive calculation errors, or for wanting to reach the rival goal too soon and, also, because the field was at its heaviest after three matches in eight days.
In spite of it all, Javi Martinez headed wide in the minute 48, Llorente also with a header in the 54, but a defence removed the ball from under the woods, in the 65 another header by Llorente went wide; in the 66, David Lopez employed Sergio and Gurpegi was introduced in 75 in the midfield replacing Javi Martinez. Finally, another header by Llorente was saved by Sergio, already in the minute 88. By then, the Gijon players had their sights set on the return match, despite the fact that from the bench Preciado tried to take advantage of Athletic’s fatigue with fresh people in the front positions.
Athletic Club, in the middle of so much restlessness and doses of resignation and deception, interpreted the match as an elimination round with the hope of reaching Gijon next week with the mental and physical glow necessary to score and advance. Meanwhile, and with ten consecutive undefeated matches, Athletic will travel to Almeria to start the second half of the season with, undoubtedly, more than one new face in the starting line-up. It wouldn’t be much to ask that we not fall in the temptation of seeing ourselves reflected in the eschatological phrase that talks about the short distance between constipation and diarrhea, a very common practice round this neck of the woods. A poorer match had to come and, at least, after this one, the Copa options continue intact, which is no small feat.