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Aug, 30, 2012

Athletic face transfer struggle

The departure of Javi Martinez for Bayern Munich has left Athletic Bilbao with a gaping hole in their squad, and it's one they will struggle to fill despite having €40 million to spend.

•  Martinez joins Bayern

Athletic's Basque-only policy means the club's transfer options are limited, but Malaga left-back Nacho Monreal, Granada midfielder Mikel Rico, Atletico Madrid midfielder Raul Garcia, Real Sociedad attacker Antoine Griezmann and Real Betis playmaker Benat Etxeberria are all potential targets ahead of Friday's transfer deadline, according to reports in Bilbao and Madrid.

Los Leones coach Marcelo Bielsa said on Wednesday, in preparation for his side's Europa League play second leg at HJK Helsinki, that Martinez loss was a big one, and the club was considering its options to replace the former fans' favourite.

"His contribution was one of a superlative player, but obviously I am currently more focused on evaluating the solutions than evaluating his departure," said Bielsa. "I am thinking very short term. (Transfer policy) is not my responsibility and I do not feel qualified to respond."

Athletic's club structure means that president Josu Urrutia and sporting director Jose Maria Amorrortu, both ex-players, are more likely to make transfer decisions. The most attractive possible targets are at near neighbours Real Sociedad, who have their own exciting young generation of Basque players, including midfielders Asier Illarramendi, 22, and Ruben Pardo, 19, and centre-half Inigo Martinez, 21.

The highest rated is Griezmann, 21, who despite being born in northern France could meet Athletic's unique criteria as his football education took place in San Sebastian, but his arrival could upset many of the club's most traditional fans, who don't see him as being sufficiently Basque to play for the Zurigorri. A €30 million approach from Athletic has been mooted, but was immediately shot down by txuri-urdin president Jokin Aperribay.

"If Athletic call asking for him I will not even answer the phone," said Aperribay earlier this summer. Martinez and Pardo have also committed their futures to the San Sebastian club in recent days.

More likely is a move for Pamplona born Malaga left-back Monreal, 26, who could be available given the financial turmoil at la Rosaleda. Malaga reportedly turned down a €4.5 million bid from Valencia for the Spanish international defender earlier in the transfer window, and may not need to sell now after sealing qualification for the lucrative Champions League group stages.

Real Betis' Benat, who was at Athletic as a youngster before moving south to Sevilla, is another option. Betis reportedly turned down a €10 million bid from Bundesliga side Wolfsburg for the playmaker, who impressed on his international debut for Spain pre-Euro 2012. Benat scored in his club's 5-3 win at San Mames on La Liga's opening weekend, but Bielsa said afterwards that he already had enough players of that type in his squad.

Granada's Mikel Rico, 27, is a more like-for-like replacement for Martinez. Granada turned down a €4 million bid from Athletic in June for the Barakaldo-born midfielder, who has a release clause of €11 million.

"For four million I would not sell even one leg of Mikel," said Granada president Enrique Pina at that point.

Atletico Madrid midfielder Garcia, 26, may be more available. He impressed last season with 11 goals in 33 games while on loan at Osasuna, but has yet to feature for Atletico since his return to the Calderon. His release clause is reportedly €25 million, but the heavily indebted Colchoneros would likely accept a lower figure.

So far this transfer window Athletic have spent just €2.5 million, all on ex-Valencia striker Aritz Aduriz. Young winger Isma Lopez also arrived for free from third tier Lugo. Both players had previously come up through the ranks at San Mames.

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