Athletic Bilbao can be a better team this season than last despite the departure of Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente's recent limited game time, coach Marcelo Bielsa said ahead of his team's must-win Europa League match against Lyon.
The Basque side, who thrilled many neutrals in beating Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and Schalke on the way to last year's Europa League final, will almost certainly exit this season's competition at the group stage unless they beat Lyon at the Estadio San Mames on Thursday.
With Martinez having departed for Bayern Munich last summer for €40 million, and Llorente relegated to a supporting role behind Aritz Aduriz after turning down a new contract offer, most observers see a side shorn of its two most important figures.
But the Argentine coach told reporters at Wednesday's pre-game press conference that he holds a different view, saying: "From my point of view this season's team is better than last year's.
"Last year we only had one centre-forward. Carlos Gurpegui, who is playing in Javi Martinez's position, has been our best performer. I do not doubt that this is potentially a better team."
Bielsa, who suggested that Ander Herrera would come into the side that won 2-1 at Granada last weekend, said Bilbao were improving and had been unfortunate to lose to a late goal at Lyon's Stade Gerland last month.
"We need to win to keep having a chance [to progress]," he said. "We must think about the game that way.
"What happened in France left us feeling good, apart from the result. An improvement in the team depends on how we play and our results. We got an important result [against Granada], and that has lifted the mood of the team."
With nine points after the first three matches, Lyon can secure their qualification into the knockout phase at San Mames, although manager Remi Garde insisted his team wouldnot be taking it easy.
"(There is) no question of sacrificing a Europa League match," warned Garde.
"I can just tell you that none of my players will lack motivation. I'm not worried about it. I always consider the next game to be the most important."
Despite his words, Garde is set to rotate his side for the trip to the Basque Country. Yoann Gourcuff's recent return from injury is set to continue from the bench , alongside the in-form Steed Malbranque. Clement Grenier, himself just back from injury, could start, as could Gueida Fofana.
"We hope that this match is one from which we qualify, but we must first deliver a good performance," Garde added. "That should concern us before we think about qualification."