Athletic Bilbao will be searching for a new head coach ahead of next season after Marcelino confirmed he is leaving the club.

Marcelino took over at the Basque club on January 3, 2021. He took Athletic to the Supercopa de Espana title later that month.

Athletic also made the final of the 2021-22 edition of the tournament but lost to Real Madrid, while former Villarreal and Valencia coach Marcelino oversaw two Copa del Rey final defeats – one of which was delayed from the 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Marcelino's side made the semi-finals of this season's Copa, beating both Barcelona and Madrid, but they lost over two legs to Valencia, who were beaten by Real Betis in the final.

The 56-year-old's contract expires at the end of June and will not be renewed. He took Athletic to eighth in LaLiga in the 2021-22 season, following on from a 10th-placed finish in the previous campaign.

Marcelino oversaw 59 league games in total, winning 19 (32.2 per cent) and losing 17, with his team scoring 70 goals while conceding 59 in return, averaging 1.36 points per game.

Marcelino told a news conference on Tuesday: "We believe the time has come to step aside and bring an end to a beautiful story. We're proud to have had the privilege of coaching Athletic Club.

"Thank you to everyone, I wish you all the success in the future. This is not a goodbye. You will always be in our hearts. Always.

"Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to the fans. We were orphans while the pandemic attacked us. Then I found out what it really means to be at San Mames as Athletic's coach.

"We have had some magical nights and unforgettable moments."

Athletic, who lost 1-0 to Sevilla in their final game of the season, have been linked with Mauricio Pochettino, should the former Tottenham boss be dismissed by Paris Saint-Germain.

Inaki Williams is Mr Reliable for Athletic Bilbao and has now not missed a single LaLiga match for a remarkable six years.

Williams started Sunday's clash with Celta Vigo, partnering Oihan Sancet up front.

That means that the 27-year-old – who seems set to stay at Bilbao for the majority of his career, given he is under contract until 2028 – has now played in 227 consecutive LaLiga matches, far and away a record in the competition.

Williams overtook previous record holder Juanan Larranaga when he played in his 203rd LaLiga match in a row earlier this season.

 

He last missed a league game on April 17, 2016, when Athletic beat Malaga 1-0.

Williams featured as a substitute in a 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid four days later and went on to play in Athletic's final four top-flight fixtures of the campaign as they just missed out on Champions League qualification.

In each of the intervening seasons, the forward has featured in all 38 LaLiga games and his incredible run of appearances includes 189 starts.

His goal tally is not quite as impressive, with Williams managing 44 in the league since the start of 2016-17, including seven so far this term.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been heavily linked with an early exit from Manchester United this season.

The Red Devils are out of the Premier League title race and struggling to make the top four.

There is said to be tension surrounding Ronaldo due to Ralf Rangnick's appointment as interim manager.

TOP STORY - RONALDO RE-COMMITS TO MAN UTD

Ronaldo will stay with United next season with interim manager Rangnick set to depart, reports AS.

The 37-year-old forward has committed to United, whom he joined in August on a two-year deal with the option for a third season, as he is confident they will show their ambition by making a major appointment with their new permanent manager.

United were eliminated from the Champions League this week by Atletico Madrid and are struggling to reach next season's edition, sitting fifth in the Premier League.

ROUND-UP

- Jesse Lingard has been offered to Italian clubs Milan and Roma as he prepares to leave United as a free agent, reports Nicolo Schira. West Ham  and Newcastle United are also interested in the 29-year-old England international.

- Benfica have slapped a £67million price tag on striker  Darwin Nunez , who is being pursued by Manchester United , Arsenal , Liverpool and Newcastle ,   according to The Mirror.

- Foot Mercato reports  Arsenal will enter the race to sign Real Madrid winger  Eden Hazard , with Chelsea previously linked to their former player.

- Fichajes claims  Atletico Madrid are considering a move for Athletic Bilbao head coach Marcelino should Diego Simeone opt to leave the Spanish champions.

Jose Bordalas dedicated Valencia's victory over Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey semi-finals to the club's "incredible" fans.

A spectacular strike from Goncalo Guedes sealed a 1-0 win at Mestalla on Wednesday and a 2-1 aggregate triumph for Valencia, as they reached the final for the second time in four seasons.

Athletic, who had lost the past two finals, only managed a single shot on target in the match as the home side, roared on by the Mestalla crowd, kept them comfortably at bay.

Valencia have won just eight of 26 LaLiga games under Bordalas this season but will now face either Real Betis or Rayo Vallecano in the final for the chance to lift a trophy and qualify for the Europa League.

"It's a feeling of enormous, incredible satisfaction," said the former Getafe boss.

"It was a case of be in the final or don't be. The little they created against us, we solved in a remarkable way. We were the fair winners of this semi-final. We're in the final on our own merit.

"These fans and this pitch are incredible. I always wanted to manage Valencia and getting to the final will give us a lot of confidence and will unite us.

"What I experienced when I arrived, I was very surprised. I couldn't explain it. I've experienced similar moments, but not like this.

"The fans all deserved that we went through. On the pitch, I couldn't even communicate with the players. Everything was shaking. This gave us incredible strength and energy."

 

Marcelino was in charge of Valencia for their Copa triumph in 2019 and took Athletic to the 2019-20 and 2020-21 finals, where they were beaten by Real Sociedad and Barcelona.

After falling short in his quest for a fourth consecutive final, the Athletic boss said his side had been punished for a lacklustre performance in the first leg.

"Firstly, we have to congratulate Valencia," he said.

"It was a very even tie, but in the first leg we weren't at a good level, and we paid for it. Here, we stood up really well, and we were superior to Valencia in the first half, but a great goal from Guedes decided the tie.

"In the second half, we maybe lacked freshness, a reading of the game. We were losing our positional play as the minutes went by and maybe our best men, or the most decisive in the second half, didn't have their best night.

"We did everything possible to reach the final. We just needed one goal to go to extra time until the 95th minute, but we didn't hit the opposition goal, and we were penalised for that.

"We would have liked to have had a final with fans. Now, we ask that they continue to support us. The team deserves it because it was only small details that decided the tie."

Valencia reached the Copa del Rey final for the third time this century as Goncalo Guedes' strike secured a 2-1 aggregate semi-final win over Athletic Bilbao.

The Portugal international's powerful effort two minutes before half-time sealed a 1-0 second-leg win at Mestalla to send Los Che through.

Winners in 2008 and 2019, Valencia will now contest the final against either Real Betis or Rayo Vallecano, who meet in the second leg of their semi-final on Thursday.

Athletic had eliminated Barcelona and Real Madrid from this season's competition but could not lift themselves after Guedes' goal and were unable to reach the final for the third year running.

After 40 tense minutes of few chances, Inaki Williams was played through on goal by Iker Muniain but dithered on the ball and was denied by goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala.

Just two minutes later, a free-kick was cleared to Guedes 25 yards from goal, he took a touch into space and blasted a superb strike well beyond the reach of Giorgi Mamardashvili.

Athletic pushed for a way back in the second half, but their final product was lacking. Williams miscontrolled at just the wrong moment, and Muniain cut inside and curled a shot a yard over.

A fierce free-kick from Inigo Martinez was well held by Mamardashvili, who had mostly been protected superbly by a disciplined back three.

Athletic had a few late set-pieces to send towards the Valencia box, but there was little to unnerve the jubilant home fans.

 

What does it mean? Valencia seize chance to rescue season

Valencia are ninth in LaLiga, 11 points outside the European places, so the Copa has represented one of the few bright spots in their season.

The chance to win the trophy for the ninth time and qualify for next season's Europa League is therefore a hugely welcome one for Jose Bordalas.

For Athletic, who had performed so well to eliminate Barca and Madrid in the previous rounds, this will feel like a missed opportunity.

Guedes' golden touch

In a contest of few clear-cut chances, it fell to Guedes to settle things with a spectacular effort from outside the box.

It was one of just four shots on target throughout, but it was worthy of winning any match.

More Copa misery for Muniain

Athletic's captain and inspiration, Muniain was exceptional in the earlier rounds to drag his side towards a possible third final in a row.

However, he could not influence proceedings at Mestalla, creating only one goalscoring chance throughout and failing to test Mamardashvili.

What's next?

Valencia host Granada in LaLiga on Saturday, while Athletic are at home to Levante next Monday.

Barcelona head coach Xavi compared Pedri to Blaugrana legend Andreas Iniesta, while he hailed the performance of Ousmane Dembele against Athletic Bilbao.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's fourth goal in his past two LaLiga appearances put the Catalan side in control against Athletic on Sunday, before a late flurry added deserved gloss to the scoreline.

Substitute Dembele, whose future remains in doubt after failing to agree to an extension on a contract that expires at the end of the season, scored one and assisted two more for substitutes Luuk de Jong and the fit-again Memphis Depay.

With those involvements, Dembele become the first Barca substitute to play a part in at least three goals in a single LaLiga game in the 21st century.

After moving back into LaLiga's top four with a 4-0 success, Xavi reserved special praise for midfielder Pedri and Dembele.

"How [Pedri] understands the game, it's wonderful to watch him play," Xavi told reporters. "He reminds me a lot of Andres Iniesta, I haven't seen many talents like that.

"I see many scenarios for Dembele, we have seen the Dembele that we want and know he is capable of doing."

Asked whether the France international will stay at the club, Xavi added: "That is no longer my thing, I have always said that he has been very professional."

Barca sit level on points with Atletico Madrid, who ran out 2-0 victors against Celta Vigo on Saturday, and moved just one shy of third-placed Real Betis after they fell to Sevilla.

The Blaugrana still boast a game in hand over their fellow top-four contenders and Xavi refused to give up hope on any possible outcome in LaLiga.

"The feelings are getting better and better," he continued. "The team is training very well, that's why the results come.

"We have worked very well and it has paid off against a team that has a very good middle and low block and that defended very well.

"Even with the [seven] changes they made, they are a strong team. Putting four goals past Athletic is not easy at all, Marcelino's teams are always very hard-working and difficult.

"We're fourth, we'll go for third, then second and if it reaches us we'll go for first. You have to be realistic and humble and keep working day by day, nothing more."

Barca have lost just one of their past 15 top-flight fixtures and will look to continue their impressive run of form when they visit Elche next Sunday.

Ousmane Dembele netted his first LaLiga goal of the season and added two assists in a dazzling cameo as Barcelona moved back into LaLiga's top four with a 4-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Dembele has become an unpopular figure with Barca fans after failing to agree an extension to his contract, which expires at the end of the season, but his thunderous effort six minutes after arriving from the bench made sure of a Camp Nou victory on Sunday.

After Atletico Madrid had leapfrogged the Blaugrana with their win on Saturday, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang continued his fine recent scoring form to set Xavi's side on their way, before Dembele struck and then twice crossed for Luuk de Jong and the fit-again Memphis Depay in the closing stages.

And with Real Betis beaten by rivals Sevilla, Barca are now just a point behind third place with a game in hand as their season maintains its upwards trajectory.

 

Gerard Pique saw a header cleared on the line by Oier Zarraga while Ferran Torres tested Unai Simon with a stinging volley as Barca dominated the opening exchanges.

The reward for Xavi's hosts arrived on 37 minutes when Aubameyang acrobatically finished after Pique headed against the crossbar from Dani Alves' corner.

Torres should have doubled his side's advantage past the hour mark, but his tame effort was pushed away by the onrushing Simon, who then denied Aubameyang's weak header.

Simon was powerless to stop Dembele, though, as substitute Frenkie de Jong found the winger, who smashed a left-footed attempt in from the left side of the box, earning a touch off the post as he put the game beyond doubt.

There was still time for Luuk de Jong to flick a header into the bottom-left corner following Dembele's pinpoint delivery from the right, before the France international repeated the trick to find Depay, who turned in from close range for the final goal.

Even if not quite the force they once were, Manchester United still like to show their fans their ambitions match up, especially in the transfer market.

Interim manager Ralf Rangnick has the job of ensuring the Red Devils qualify for next season's Champions League and is currently on course, with them sitting fourth in the Premier League.

However, the club supposedly remain confident of adding big names at the end of the season regardless of a top-four finish.

 

TOP STORY – MAN UTD WANT MORE ENGLAND STARS

Manchester United believe they can attract big names to Old Trafford at the end of the season, even if they may not have Champions League football to offer.

According to ESPN, the Premier League club have an ambitious list of targets that includes England pair Declan Rice and Harry Kane, and they believe the 2016 signing of Paul Pogba – when they were in the Europa League – is proof the name of the club is enticing enough.

It remains to be seen what that means for whomever the incoming permanent manager is by then, but they will likely not say no to additions of that calibre.

ROUND-UP

Atletico Madrid are plotting a move for Georginio Wijnaldum from Paris Saint-Germain, according to Fichajes.

- Calciomercato claims Inter wish to add Torino defender Bremer to their ranks next season and may already have an agreement with the player.

- Meanwhile, Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele is being pursued on a free transfer by both Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, 90min reports.

- The Catalan giants could get one in return though as they have offered a two-year deal to Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta, according to Sport.

- Marca is reporting Tottenham are looking at Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simon as a potential long-term replacement for Hugo Lloris.

Roma could reignite their interest in Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka at the end of the season, Calciomercato says.

Carlo Ancelotti admitted Real Madrid missed the quality of Karim Benzema as he claimed their Copa del Rey exit to Athletic Bilbao was not a surprise.

The LaLiga leaders were beaten 1-0 at San Mames on Thursday, Alex Berenguer scoring a brilliant winner in the 89th minute to send Athletic into the semi-finals.

It was a measure of revenge for Marcelino's men, who lost 2-0 in the Supercopa de Espana final to Madrid last month, in which Benzema scored the second goal.

Los Blancos were without their talisman in the Basque country, though, as he had not recovered from a hamstring injury sustained in the 2-2 draw with Elche.

In the absence of Benzema, who has scored 24 goals in 28 appearances this season, Madrid managed just two shots on target against Athletic, while their first-half expected goals figure of 0.1 was their lowest since January 2020.

Ancelotti accepted the decision not to rush Benzema back into action left his side without enough of a threat going forward.

 

"We're hurt because we want to win everything. I don't think it will have consequences. I only hope that it makes us stronger," he said of the defeat, as quoted by Marca.

"We don't have players of Karim's quality. We didn't change the plan. We tried to play from the back, and we couldn't. Athletic's pressing was really great until the 70th minute.

"I think in extra time we would have had the advantage, but they scored in the last minute. We played too much on the wings. We should have used [David] Alaba and Casemiro more. It didn't go the way we wanted.

"It's not the worst game of the season. It was even until the end. I'm not surprised with how the game went."

Even as Madrid's attack laboured, Ancelotti left Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale and Luka Jovic on the bench, his only changes being Isco for Toni Kroos and Eduardo Camavinga for Vinicius Junior.

It was put to Ancelotti that the trio were being punished by being kept among the substitutes, but he replied: "I have nothing to say. Nobody is punished. [Dani] Ceballos and [Jesus] Vallejo didn't play, either. They're at the same level as the others who didn't play. You have to be fair.

"Kroos was taken off due to fatigue, as was Vinicius. We were thinking of changes for extra time and there wasn't time."

Madrid's next match is at home to Granada in LaLiga on Sunday.

Athletic Bilbao avenged their Supercopa de Espana final loss by defeating Real Madrid 1-0 in Thursday's Copa del Rey quarter-final.

Alex Berenguer struck a brilliant winner in the 89th minute to send Marcelino's men into the last four, where Valencia, Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano await.

Madrid had beaten Athletic 2-0 in last month's Supercopa final but could not find a breakthrough at San Mames in the absence of Karim Benzema.

It means Athletic, who eliminated Barcelona in the previous round, could now reach their third consecutive Copa final, having lost the previous two to Barca and Real Sociedad.

Clear-cut chances were scarce in the first half, but it was Athletic who carried the threat, with 10 shots to Madrid's three despite having only 41.3 per cent of the possession.

Indeed, Carlo Ancelotti's men ended the half with just 0.1 expected goals, their lowest tally for the first 45 minutes of any match since a 1-0 away win over Real Valladolid in January 2020.

Inigo Martinez saw a header well saved by Thibaut Courtois early in the second half, before Raul Garcia glanced an effort wide via a deflection and Berenguer, on for the injured Nico Williams, fired over.

Madrid began to assume more control as the 90 minutes wore on and Casemiro spurned a great chance, firing straight at Julen Agirrezabala from Marco Asensio's clever backheel.

Yet just as extra time beckoned, Berenguer produced a moment of magic, turning cleverly onto his left foot inside the Madrid box before bending a superb strike to the right of Courtois.

 

 

Karim Benzema has been left out of Real Madrid's squad for the Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic Bilbao on Thursday due to a hamstring injury. 

The fitness of France international Benzema has been a source of concern since he hobbled off in the second half of Madrid's 2-2 draw with Elche in LaLiga on January 23. 

During his pre-match news conference, Carlo Ancelotti was hopeful the striker, who has been in sensational form this season with 24 goals in 28 games in all competitions, would be fit for the trip to San Mames but insisted no risks would be taken. 

Benzema's name was not in the 22-man squad for the match against Athletic that was released later on Wednesday, prompting concerns about his fitness for the Champions League last-16 meeting with Paris Saint-Germain in less than two weeks. 

Mariano Diaz and Ferland Mendy also miss out through injury, while Marcelo is ineligible due to suspension. 

However, Marco Asensio could make his return from a hamstring injury sustained in the Supercopa de Espana success against Barcelona 

March 8 will mark 10 years since Manchester United suffered one of their most one-sided home defeats in the Alex Ferguson era.

The Europa League last-16 first leg finished 3-2 to Athletic Bilbao, but the scoreline belied the contest. United were comprehensively out-run and outplayed, dismantled by Marcelo Bielsa's bold, brilliant Basques. Ferguson went as far as admitting that David de Gea kept embarrassment levels to a minimum: "Our goalkeeper's made four or five terrific saves in the game, so really, it's not the worst result for us."

Athletic's performance was one of the finest by an away team against United in the past 30 years. That might sound an exaggeration, but it was clear to everyone present in Manchester that night, Ferguson included. Javi Martinez, Oscar de Marcos, Ander Herrera and Fernando Llorente were four of the visitors' standout stars but there was barely a misstep from any of them.

And one man – one teenager, to be precise – looked like he was playing a different game to everyone else.

Iker Muniain scored what proved to be the winner in the closing minutes, capping a quite astonishing performance from a relatively unknown 19-year-old at the home of the reigning English champions and Champions League runners-up. He was beguiling, fearless, two steps ahead – everything you might expect from a player who had been a fixture in the first team from the age of 16.

Today, Muniain has 481 appearances for the club, the eighth-most in their history. He has played under seven coaches and been integral to the plans of each. He is Athletic's captain, their standard-bearer, the man who inspired them past Barcelona in the Copa del Rey last month with a powerhouse of a performance. He is probably playing the best football of his career.

As Athletic prepare to face Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, they will hope that form continues. Muniain has finished runner-up in this competition four times, including twice last year. He lost the 2012 Europa League final, too, and the Supercopa de Espana two weeks ago.

Now more than ever, he deserves a winner's medal.

 

San Iker

There is something unquantifiable about Muniain's importance to Athletic; after his two-goal performance in the 3-2 win over Barca, coach Marcelino grasped for the right words to describe his impact beyond mere numbers, eventually settling on "a huge presence" and "constancy". But the numbers are also pretty good.

In 23 games in all competitions this season, Muniain has scored four goals and set up a further six. He is on track to surpass his best return for direct goal involvements in a single season of 16, set in 2011-12. Back then, he averaged a goal or assist every 284 minutes; this term, that figure is down to one every 186. He's already created more chances this season than he did under Bielsa in the whole campaign a decade ago, in part because he has set-piece responsibility these days.

 

Muniain has created at least 10 more chances (60) than any other player in LaLiga this term, while his tally of 72 across all competitions is eight more than second-place Vinicius Junior among players from Spain's top tier. It puts him fifth among players across Europe's top five leagues, behind Benjamin Bourigeaud (73), Bruno Fernandes (79), Thomas Muller (82) and Dimitri Payet (105). He has completed at least 14 more dribbles (41) than those players and made at least two more interceptions (19) than them, just to remind you that he's not your average playmaker.

And yet, those assist numbers feel a little low for someone who creates quite so many attacking opportunities, even though the numbers add up (his five assists in LaLiga this season come from an expected assists figure of 4.65). The problem perhaps lies in Athletic's rather chronic lack of ruthlessness – something that has reared its head in recent years, including in those unsuccessful finals.

 

Marcelino's side have scored 21 goals from 30.9 expected goals in LaLiga in 2021-22, the biggest negative difference in the competition. Their top scorer is Inaki Williams with five goals in 22 games. There's no Telmo Zarra, Llorente or Aritz Aduriz these days. Nobody has managed more than 15 in a season in the league since Aduriz in 2016-17 (16).

It makes you wonder how high that Muniain assist count would be had he been tempted away by another club to play alongside a Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski or Kylian Mbappe. Of course, it's not something the man himself has ever really considered. "San Mames is magic, magic," he said recently. "I'm lucky to play here, to have that feeling that runs over your whole body."

 

Captain Maravilloso

Compared with many star number 10s, Muniain has what you might call an atypical view of his football career (when he signed his latest contract in 2018, it contained no release clause – why would he ever want to leave?). Then again, he is far from what might be called a traditional player to wear that number, the kind of static central playmaker whose primary task is to get the ball to others to do damage.

One thing that sets Muniain apart is his movement with the ball. Whether working space in attack or simply keeping possession, as he did to brilliant, game-killing effect in the 120th minute against Barcelona, Muniain is devilishly difficult to dispossess. There's a reason he was once called the Spanish Messi.

Muniain is joint-11th among attacking players in LaLiga with the most take-ons in the opponents' half (57) this season, completing just over half of his overall attempts across the pitch; among that group, only Lucas Boye (68 per cent), Oscar Trejo (64 per cent) and Nabil Fekir (58 per cent) have better success rates.

That dribbling tends to yield results, too: Nico Gonzalez (five) is the only player in LaLiga this season with more take-ons ending in a chance created than Muniain (four).

 

Among LaLiga's forwards this season, only Vinicius (427), Nabil Fekir (302) and Goncalo Guedes (283) have tallied more carries – a run of five metres or more with the ball – than Muniain (241), while Vinicius is the only man in that list to create more chances at the end of a carry (19 to Muniain's 14). If you look at those chances in which the creator was also earlier involved in the build-up (nine), Muniain ranks joint-fourth in the division, again proving his importance to Marcelino's plans goes well beyond the final pass.

Athletic want their captain on the ball, and he rarely disappoints when he gets it, whether it be through bringing others into play or retaining possession until the optimum moment. As Marcelino said after the Barca match: "His decision-making, the technical ability... brutal."

And final-ly...

Athletic's policy of fielding only Basque players, the vast majority of them products of their own academy, is a laudable one. It's also an ethos that sets them at a disadvantage compared to rival teams.

In that context, their successes are remarkable: one of just three teams never to be relegated from Spain's top flight, along with Barca and Real Madrid, Athletic have won eight league titles, 23 Copas del Rey and three Supercopas de Espana. Additionally, they lifted the 1902 Copa de la Coronacion, considered the first edition of Spain's premier domestic knockout competition.

It also means they have spent much of the past three decades playing catch-up to their own illustrious past. Since the double-winning side of 1983-84, they have lifted just two trophies, both Supercopas, in 2015 and in January last year. Their best league finish since 1998 was fourth place in 2013-14, and this is their fourth successive season without European football. 

Yet it's the final defeats that have hurt most. Barcelona (five times), Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad (boy, that one stung) have beaten Athletic to a trophy since 2009. Muniain has been at the club for all of them.

There is little shame in those defeats. Two of them came at the hands of Pep Guardiola's Barca, and the third was in Luis Enrique's first term in charge at Camp Nou. Two of those Barca teams won those finals en route to the treble, and all three ended those seasons as champions of Europe. Athletic also lost to Diego Simeone's Atletico in the Europa League final in 2012 and the runaway league leaders most recently in the Supercopa. They deserve recognition just for competing with these sides for so long.

 

Markel Susaeta told Stats Perform last year: "It's very difficult to play in a final with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. Their salaries are very big and have the best players in the world.

"To play one final with Athletic and if you've grown up in the academy, it's one of the special things you can live as a football player. There's not many chances to win titles. It's very, very special."

Muniain has lived it. He deserves to do so again, and this time, to lift a trophy: first for the fans at the stadium, and then on the famous Gabarra down the Nervion river. If that sounds romantic... well, this is a player who makes you love the game.

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has said Karim Benzema could be fit for Thursday's Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic Bilbao at San Mames, but warned he will not be risked unnecessarily.

The France striker – who sustained a hamstring strain in the 2-2 draw with Elche on January 23 – will train with his team-mates on Wednesday, according to Ancelotti, but the coach said he will only play if he is at "100 per cent".

Benzema has been in excellent form for the LaLiga leaders, scoring 24 goals and assisting a further nine in 28 appearances in all competitions this season.

Speaking at a media conference ahead of Thursday's game, Ancelotti said: "We don't know yet [if Benzema will play], because he's only been able to do individual work.

"He has good feelings, and now he is going to train with the group. At the end, we will make a decision. We're not going to risk it. If he has the medical discharge, he will play; if not, no."

Asked again about Benzema, Ancelotti reiterated: "The decision is simple. If he is well, he will play; if not, he will stay at home. If he is not 100 per cent, it makes no sense to put him in a game that is going to demand a lot from us."

The Italian also suggested his South American players may be able to play some part, despite only now returning from international duty after yesterday's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers.

Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo both played in Brazil's 4-0 win against Paraguay, with Casemiro an unused substitute, while Federico Valverde featured in Uruguay's 4-1 win against Venezuela. Eder Militao was allowed to return to Madrid by Brazil a few days early as he was suspended for the Paraguay game.

"We also have to assess the status of the players who have played with their national teams," Ancelotti added. "If they are just tired, they will travel. They may not start the game, but I may need them throughout the game, especially if we get to extra time.

"Vinicius and Rodrygo come back from playing, but they are 20 years old, not 60 like me. I think they can get back."

Madrid have faced Athletic three times already this season, twice in the league and once in the recent final of the Supercopa de Espana, with Los Blancos winning all three – including a 2-1 victory at San Mames just before the mid-season break.

"It's a very important match," Ancelotti added. "It's a competition in which we are very excited. It is a difficult match, against a strong opponent and a very difficult environment such as San Mames.

"We've played well the previous three games against them, but it will be a very close game. To win in San Mames, you have to get the best"

Ancelotti said he still did not know if he was going to start Thibaut Courtois or Andriy Lunin in goal, but a more pressing selection issue will be a left-back, with both Ferland Mendy and Marcelo unavailable.

"There are two options, [David] Alaba or Nacho," he said. "I've already decided, but I'm not going to say it.

"The evaluation does not depend on whether Nico Williams or [Alex] Berenguer plays. Nacho is more defensive and less used to it. Alaba gives us a lot of options with the ball and he's used to playing there."

The race for Erling Haaland's signature will be a huge story in 2022.

The 21-year-old sensation has interest from some of Europe's biggest clubs.

Haaland has netted 63 goals in the past 18 months for Borussia Dortmund.

 

TOP STORY – MAN UTD GIVE UP ON HAALAND

Manchester United have pulled out of the race to sign Dortmund's Haaland, according to ESPN.

The Red Devils will focus on alternative attacking options with uncertainty around Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo's futures at the club while Haaland is favouring a move to Real Madrid.

United have had a long-standing interest in the Norwegian, who has a €75 million (£62m) release clause on his Dortmund contract.

 

ROUND-UP

- Manchester City are closing in on a deal for River Plate's 21-year-old Argentina international Julian Alvarez, claims The Telegraph. As part of the imminent deal, Alvarez – who has interest from Milan, Inter and Juventus – will remain with River until June. The fee is expected to be no less than £20m.

- Liverpool have joined the race to sign Borussia Monchengladbach's Denis Zakaria, according to ESPN. The Reds will rival Dortmund and Bayern Munich who are both keen on the Swiss midfielder.

- Ajax's Mexico international Edson Alvarez is attracting interest from Premier League trio Chelsea, Leicester City and Crystal Palace, reports Football Insider.

- Leeds United have opened contract talks with Brazilian superstar Raphinha,  according to the Daily Star, amid interest from Chelsea and Liverpool .

- French club Nice are set to offer Tottenham's Bryan Gil a loan deal, according to L'Equipe. The Spaniard has struggled for impact since his move to England.

- Diario AS claims that Valencia are working on a January deal for Athletic Bilbao defender Unai Nunez .

Real Madrid will face Barcelona's conquerors Athletic Bilbao in the pick of the Copa del Rey quarter-final ties.

The one-legged fixture at San Mames is a repeat of last week's Supercopa de Espana final, which Madrid won 2-0 to secure the first silverware of Carlo Ancelotti's second spell.

Madrid will now look to take advantage of record 31-time winners Barca's last-16 exit to Athletic, with Iker Muniain's extra-time penalty eliminating the holders in a 3-2 defeat. 

Friday's draw, which was conducted by Spain legend David Villa, also pitted LaLiga high-flyers Real Sociedad and Real Betis.

Betis are third in the Spanish top flight after enjoying a sensational campaign thus far, while Sociedad are fifth and themselves in contention for a Champions League spot.

Valencia will take on Cadiz, meanwhile, and Rayo Vallecano are up against Real Mallorca in the other all-LaLiga quarter-final fixture.

All four ties will take place in two weeks' time, with the first leg of the semi-finals scheduled for the following week. 

Copa del Rey quarter-final draw in full:

Athletic Bilbao v Real Madrid
Real Sociedad v Real Betis
Valencia v Cadiz
Rayo Vallecano v Real Mallorca

Page 1 of 7
© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.