On Tuesday night, Athletic Club Bilbao had a total of four players sent off as they went on to beat Barcelona 4-2. The result was made possible by the sending offs of Andres Iniesta, Sergi Roberto and Lionel Messi in quick succession early into the second half with Miguel Alba also being shown red shortly before halftime.
2:05 p.m. Eastern
Sid Lowe is a writer from Spain.
Iker Muniain stated, “San Mames is magical,” and Iker Muniain agreed.
It was late, everyone was fatigued, and it had been a memorable evening: one that no one could forget. The rain was falling the way it was intended to at San Mames, the “Cathedral,” and Athletic Bilbao had just defeated Barcelona 3-2 in the Copa del Rey after 120 minutes of bodies shattering. The sort of night when Athletic coach Marcelino Garcia Toral’s first thought when he arrived post-match was to say, “Thank you for letting me experience it,” a “wonderful” moment that he would remember “for the rest of my life.”
Their captain was attempting to make himself heard above the din at the finish, which was nearly as tough as staying upright. It would have been helpful if someone had wheeled over a wheelchair for him. You almost expected him to crawl back down the tube once he finished, which was long after midnight. But the feeling was amplified because they were so empty, and it carried them.
“You get a tremendous sense of fulfillment,” Munian remarked. “San Mames is a magical place. I’m fortunate to be able to play here, to have that sensation that pervades your whole body.”
– Watch a replay of Athletic Bilbao vs. Barcelona on ESPN+ – LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, and more on ESPN+ – Watch ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (available in the United States only) – Don’t have ESPN? Get immediate access
Muniain lay on the turf, arms outstretched like a star, as the final whistle blew. His was almost the first touch of the game. On 99 seconds, he curled an unbelievably brilliant shot over Marc Andre ter-Stegen, turning, curling, and dropping from an awkward angle to open the scoring. That moment seemed like it had occurred a long time ago, and a lot had transpired since then, all the way up to the last touch of the entire affair. That was Muniain’s as well, and something about it seemed just right. It wasn’t simply a coincidence, that’s for sure.
Athletic has played Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, and now Barcelona in the span of a week. They had already defeated Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. Between two defeats, they lost the Spanish Supercopa final against Real Madrid. At the conclusion, they rose and cheered their opponents, a move that was met with a chorus of applause. Pablo Garcia took a shot of Muniain from behind, showing him standing with the runners-up shield under his arm and the medal around his neck, watching. Garcia had taken a similar one ten months before, this time towards the conclusion of the cup final versus Real Sociedad.
Athletic had been in four finals in a year — two Supercopas and two Copas del Rey — but had lost all four. Muniain has not stopped sobbing since Real Sociedad’s humiliating loss. He, like the rest of them, had held to their one Supercopa victory last season: the Supercopa was important to Athletic, and even reaching the finals was a feat. That was something he and they insisted on following the defeat to Madrid last Sunday — and not without reason. They must confront a reality that they gladly accept: their “Basque-only” recruiting policy imposes constraints that they are all aware of.
Four days on, they were trying to go back and have another go, seeking to reach another final. Barcelona were beaten to set up another meeting with Madrid in the quarterfinals on Feb. 3 (3:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+). And Muniain knows what that means.
“I may have given up the potential to win a lot of trophies, but I’d rather win one cup here than five Champions Leagues at another club,” he has said. Barcelona and Osasuna visited to his family to sign him as a child, but Muniain preferred Athletic. He deleted the buyout option when he last renewed his contract, since there was no need or desire for it. He donned a t-shirt with a phrase on it to the signing, which he borrowed from Matt Le Tissier, who Athletic had honored with the first of what is now a regular One Club Man award. The tagline on the t-shirts, which were sold in the club store, was: “Playing for the top clubs is a fun task, but playing against them and beating them is much more tough. This is a duty that I commit myself to.”
Athletic Club and Muniain accomplished just that on Thursday night. He’d assisted them in crossing the finish line.
Marcelino grinned when asked about Muniain’s performance on Thursday night. He thought it would be unjust to pick out a single player when everyone had performed so brilliantly, and he was correct. Nico Williams, Inigo Martinez, Yuri Berchiche, and Alex Berenguer had all been outstanding. He, too, couldn’t help himself. Munian’s performance had been “amazing,” he remarked.
That is one word, and although it is correct, it may not be sufficient. It’s difficult to remember a better all-around individual match from anybody in a long time.
The beautiful game lives here. Unlock world-class coverage of top leagues, tournaments and teams. Sign up now to stream soccer on ESPN+
SATURDAY, JAN. 22 • Levante v Cadiz (8 a.m. ET) • Hoffenheim v Dortmund (9:30 a.m. ET) • Leverkusen v Augsburg (9:30 a.m. ET) • Gladbach v Union Berlin (9:30 a.m. ET) • Freiburg v Stuttgart (9:30 a.m. ET) • Greuther Furth v Mainz (9:30 a.m. ET) • Villarreal v Mallorca (10:15 a.m. ET) • Sevilla v Celta Vigo (12:30 p.m. ET) • Bochum v Cologne (12:30 p.m. ET) • Atletico Madrid v Valencia (3 p.m. ET)
There was always something unique about him, yet often projecting how amazing a player he would be rather than reflecting how excellent he really is becomes an issue, raising the bar too high and skewing judgments. There have been times when he hasn’t been the player that some anticipated he would be. Injuries were also an issue: he tore knee ligaments twice, missing more than 60 games over two stretches, the most recent of which was in 2018. A glance at the most basic statistics reveals a level of consistency that is only truly broken by injury: Since the first season, there have been 28, 31, 34, 14, 35, 20, 25, 35, 33, 33, 35, and 26 league games played.
This season, he has started more league games than anybody else at Athletic. He has been outstanding, albeit undetected. While he was formerly known as Bart Simpson, he no longer connects with that age of naughty youth, and while his skill has always been there, he’s now better than ever. Playing on the left side of the four, he has the flexibility to get inside, where Marcelino claims he can be more engaged — and the more time he spends on the ball, the better. Only one Athletic player has a higher pass completion percentage. Luka Modric has less interventions than he does.
The manager has welcomed him, and the two are forming a connection that has some resemblance to Marcelino’s and Dani Parejo’s at Valencia. They discuss strategies and technique often. Marcelino is physically better than before, which is one of his big passions. It’s also unique. There’s a maturity, a leadership, and an understanding that was evident on Thursday night, which is why the headline moments didn’t really characterize this performance. It wasn’t the goals or the (pre-)assist that made the difference. It was everything.
Marcelino commented, “His reading of the game; tactically, he was extremely brilliant; his decision-making; the technical ability… ruthless.” “On top of it all, there’s the consistency, which is a great presence. Extremely thorough.”
And if there was a moment that helped explain that, it wasn’t the goal, assist, or penalty; maybe it was what occurred at the end, the acceptance of danger and responsibility, the search for a solution to keep them all safe. He took them across the line in such a manner that they said, “OK, leave it to me.” When he dropped down into a corner where there was no way out and discovered a way out in minute 117. When he traveled in circles, he left Frenkie de Jong on the floor and Nico Gonzalez behind. The point at which he performed very much the same thing for the second time in 120 minutes. On 121, as well.
“In such times when there isn’t much time left and the legs are weary, I tried to seize the ball so the team could breathe,” he said. “Time passed, and the game died there with us holding possession,” he added. When the final whistle blew on a night that no one would forget, a night that one captain and coach described as “wonderful,” the ball was at Muniain’s feet, as was San Mames.