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Aug 27, 2014

Athletic fans rallied for UCL decider

The second play-off match between Athletic Bilbao and Napoli will determine whether the Spaniards can progress to the Champions League for the first time since 1998.

Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde says he hopes a full house inside the finally completed new San Mames ground on Wednesday night will roar his side past Napoli and into this season's Champions League group stage.

The tie is neatly poised after a 1-1 draw in Naples in last week's first leg, but Athletic fans are hoping the away goal and the support of 50,000 home supporters inside the impressively rebuilt stadium will help them come through and play a first proper Champions League campaign since 1996.

Los Leones coach Valverde said in his prematch news conference, reported by AS, that a fast start from his players would ensure the crowd was on their side from the kick-off.

"It is very important that the team is connected right from the start," Valverde said. "There is a massive difference between a crowd which is plugged-in and a crowd which is indifferent. It is fundamental for us to get the crowd on our side, and you do that with your play."

Iker Muniain (l) scored Athletic's goal at Napoli last week.

Valverde said he and his team had been getting mentally ready for this fixture since they finished fourth in La Liga last May, and he did not expect the same nervy beginning from his side as in Italy.

"It is always easier to prepare for these type of games," he said. "The players have been thinking about it for months. A player must know how to control the tension, we saw that at the start in Naples, when they were settling in. It is an extraordinary game, we are inaugurating the ground. We always responded well in these games last year."

Athletic relaxed into the game when young winger Iker Muniain, 21, put his side in front, although they were hanging on a bit at the end after Gonzalo Higuain equalised for Napoli.

Muniain, who has begun the season in excellent form, could again influence the second leg, Valverde said, while also warning that Napoli had many quality attacking players.

"We know Iker is in good form, in Naples and at Malaga he played very well," he said. "They also have important players, you can put spider webs around [Marek] Hamsik, [Jose] Callejon, [Dries] Mertens... There are no secrets for Napoli or for us."

Athletic have not significantly strengthened their squad this summer, despite selling playmaker Ander Herrera to Manchester United for about 35 million euros. Widespread reports however have claimed that should they make the Champions League group stage, a loan move for Real Madrid midfielder Asier Illarramendi is likely.

Illarramendi cost Madrid 38 million euros when he arrived from Real Sociedad 12 months ago. The former Spain under-21 international made 49 appearances for Real last season, but struggled badly in big games, and is now further down pecking order at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu with Toni Kroos arriving and Sami Khedira staying.

AS also reports that current Athletic 'holding' midfielder Ander Iturraspe could move to Bayern Munich before the window shuts, due to Javi Martinez's serious injury, although the signing of Mehdi Benatia from Roma this week makes that move look less likely.

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