Athletic Bilbao coach Marcelo Bielsa has denied that personality differences are behind the possible exits of star players Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez and claimed he would be willing to step aside if it helped the pair stay at the club.
With Llorente, 27, reportedly having refused to sign a new contract and keen on a €20 million move to Juventus and Martinez, 23, close to signing for Bayern Munich for €40 million, the Argentine coach offered to resign if the players were leaving because of him.
The Spain duo missed Athletic's opening day 5-3 home defeat to Real Betis, and were verbally abused by fans in the club's open training sessions in the run-up to the game.
"I know that Javi Martinez and Llorente are much more important than me for Athletic," Bielsa said. "I spoke with them to see if I was an obstacle and if they had said yes, I would have acted accordingly.
"I have respect for the project and it would have been best for the project. I came here because of what the club signifies and I would not operate in any other way."
All seemed rosy at the Basque club last spring, as they steamrolled Manchester United and Schalke on their way to the Europa League final, while also reaching the Copa del Rey showpiece.
Heavy defeats to Atletico Madrid and Barcelona in both games killed that momentum, and reports in the local media have suggested both Martinez and Llorente were unhappy with some aspects of Bielsa's management and had decided it was more likely they would win trophies elsewhere.
"This is not an easy moment for Athletic," Bielsa admitted. "Last year was very positive, although it did not end well. We were all very excited to continue the project, but it was not possible. The reality is that football as a business is not compatible with the sentiments that Athletic has traditionally defended.
"But everyone has the right to their professional and personal rights and to want to change club. It is understandable."
The Argentine coach, talking to reporters ahead of Athletic's Europa League clash with HJK Helsinki - for which both Llorente and Martinez will once more absent - on Thursday evening, said that neither player would play the game, while defender Fernando Amorebieta is in a similar situation as his contract negotiations continue to drag on.
Better news for Athletic fans is that summer signing Aritz Aduriz is fit and should start in attack, although young attacker Iker Muniain is more likely to begin the game on the bench.