Bilbao counting on home advantage in return
BILBAO, Spain (AP) — Athletic Bilbao has a long-standing tradition of only fielding players with Basque connections, a policy that has sometimes worked to its advantage but more often made it hard to progress at Europe’s top level.
This season, a 4-2 aggregate playoff win over Napoli secured Bilbao a spot in the group stage of the Champions League for the first time since the 1998-99 season. It now hosts Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday in Group H.
Bilbao finished fourth in the Spanish league last season. The club has formed part of Spain’s top league since it was inaugurated in 1929 and remarkably — like Real Madrid or Barcelona — has never been relegated.
In the other Group H match, FC Porto hosts BATE Borisov.
Here are some things to know about Wednesday’s games:
Athletic Bilbao is enjoying its refurbished 211 million euro ($273 million) San Mames Stadium, construction of which went ahead despite the region’s — and Spain’s — economic woes.
Although the northern Spanish club has only won one of its three matches this season, that victory was a 3-0 home win against Levante.
“We must be strong at home, as we were last year in the league which helped us very much,” Bilbao winger Iker Muniain said. “We are not invincible at San Mames, but we feel very confident because we are always pushing to the maximum.”
Bilbao has lost only once in its past 15 home encounters in Europe, winning eight of them.
TROUBLES AT HOME
Shakhtar currently plays its home matches in Lviv because of the ongoing political and military unrest in Ukraine that has included having its premises occupied by armed men.
On the field, Shakhtar has won all eight of its competitive matches this season.
The Ukrainian champions have also traditionally been a tough opponent in the Champions League, winning five of their last opening matches.
Shakhtar forward Luiz Adriano and his teammates have experience against Porto, having lost to them 2-1 in 2011, but they know little about the other teams in the group.
“We don’t know the other opponents and we must be careful,” the Brazilian said. “We must study these teams well so as not to be surprised by them.”
Ruben Neves is already the youngest player to score for Porto in the domestic league — on his debut — and the youngest Portuguese player to appear in the Champions League, in a playoff against Lille.
The 17-year-old attacking midfielder has another milestone in his sights: finding the net against BATE Borisov, which would make him the competition’s youngest scorer.
Porto, a two-time European champion, overhauled its squad in the off-season after Spaniard Julen Lopetegui, a former Spanish youth team coach, took charge.