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Athletic come out on top in water-ball battle

Raúl García's 19th-minute header handed Ernesto Valverde's men a first-leg lead in their Europa League last-16 clash with Los Che.

Athletic come out on top in water-ball battle

Valencia escaped from San Mamés still alive on Thursday night, after a last-16 first leg in which they will count themselves lucky only to have lost by the one goal. It is a result that sees Gary Neville's charges go into the return at Mestalla in a week entertaining continued hopes of progressing.

Athletic Club, meanwhile, will take heart from the fact that they have the edge in the tie courtesy of Raúl García's superb first-half header. However, Aritz Aduriz twice had chances to leave them with one foot in the quarter-finals, only to spurn them both in uncharacteristic fasion. An inspired Matthew Ryan did the rest.

With the rain lashing down in Bilbao, the weather made for a mud-soaked bog of a pitch reminiscent of years past. The Athletic of times gone by would have been in their element on such a surface, but Ernesto Valverde's men are a ball-playing side, and it remained to be seen how the conditions would impact on the hosts against a Valencia outfit committed to defending their lines and searching out Rodrigo Moreno and Pablo Piatti on the flanks.

But Los Leones adjusted perfectly, and in the end were well worth a wider margin of victory than the final 1-0 scoreline.

It took no time at all for goalkeeper Ryan to be called to the rescue for the visitors in the encounter's opening stages, the Australian denying Markel Susaeta after Athletic custodian Iago Herrerín had found the wide man with a terrific long kick out.

The home team were playing the sort of game that the elements dictated they should, instilling fear in the away backline by looking to make the most of their dead-ball opportunities. And as soon as an Athletic shirt got on the end of a set-piece, Raúl García headed a measured Beñat delivery into the net.

Raúl García (right) heads the night's only goal past keeper Matthew Ryan.
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Raúl García (right) heads the night's only goal past keeper Matthew Ryan.LUIS TEJIDOEFE

Two minutes later, a gilt-edged chance fell to Aduriz as Ander Iturraspe, stepping into the breach following Mikel San José's late pull-out due to the birth of his child, fed the striker with a pinpoint ball. The 35-year-old brought the pass down expertly, but could only send his finish off target.

Valencia breathed a sigh of relief, before Rodrigo had Basque hearts in mouths when he outpaced centre-back Aymeric Laporte to find himself one on one with Herrerín, who stood up well to prevent the equaliser.

Athletic were in no mood to hedge their bets, however, and went in search of a second. They had more than enough opportunities to do so, with one for Aduriz with his head, two for Sabin Merino and a Beñat free-kick proving the prelude to another golden opening spurned by their top scorer, from Mikel Balenziaga's long pass.

By the time referee Bjorn Kuipers called an end to the proceedings, Valencia were begging for the final whistle. At Mestalla they have no option but to go for it.


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