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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Nov 30, 2006

Primera Liga: Real host new-look Bilbao

MADRID, Nov 30 (Reuters) - Athletic Bilbao's decision to change their coach for the fifth time in 18 months has over-shadowed their preparation for this Sunday's league match against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.

The troubled Basque side sacked former reserve team coach Felix Sarriugarte after their 3-1 defeat at home to high-flying Sevilla last week and appointed former Deportivo Alaves boss Mane as his replacement.

Mane enjoyed an unprecedented spell of success while he was in charge of the modest Basque side, leading them to promotion to the top flight in 1998 and then overseeing their unexpected run to the UEFA Cup final in 2001.

He further enhanced his reputation by steering Levante to promotion last season, but admits that he faces his biggest test yet as he tries to resurrect beleaguered Athletic who are currently 18th in the 20-team table with just eight points from their opening 12 matches.

'It's a difficult and complex job, but I think we can take things forward,' he said when he was unveiled to the media on Wednesday.

'We have to try and change the negative atmosphere that surrounds the team.'

But Mane believes that the challenge of a match against Real could provide the catalyst for a revival in fortunes.

'Athletic have often played well at the Bernabeu and my own record there isn't that bad,' he said. 'It isn't a bad place to start and the stars might just be in our favour.'

Real kept the heat on leaders Barcelona with a 1-0 win at Valencia last weekend that left them third, just three points adrift of their arch-rivals.

Fabio Capello's side are the most effective visitors in the league, but they are less successful at home where they are under pressure from their fans to depart from the Italian's conservative tactics.

David Beckham and Ronaldo have both trained with the rest of the squad this week after recovering from injury and could feature, but recently crowned European Footballer of the Year Fabio Cannavaro and influential playmaker Guti are both suspended.

Gimnastic Tarragona, who also sacked their coach after a league defeat last weekend, have appointed the no-nonsense former Espanyol and Real Zaragoza coach Paco Flores to replace Luis Cesar.

Flores faces a tricky opening game at Villarreal who are still licking their wounds after a 4-0 mauling at the hands of Barcelona.

Real Sociedad, the other Primera Liga side to fire their coach this season and the only one not yet to have won a game, host Getafe at Anoeta.

Bernd Schuster's side are the envy of the more modest teams in the top flight as they ride high in sixth place in the table just nine points off leaders Barca.

The Catalans, who are having to cope without injured attacking trio Samuel Eto'o, Lionel Messi and Javier Saviola, are likely to be relying once more on Eidur Gudjohnsen and the brilliant Ronaldinho when they meet Levante.

Frank Rijkaard's men could be forgiven, however, for having their minds on Tuesday's crucial clash at home to Werder Bremen which they must win if they are to continue their defence of their Champions League crown.