Valverde delighted as Bilbao defeat Napoli
Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde said that a huge party was taking place in his side's dressing room when he spoke after Wednesday's 3-1 play-off second leg win over Napoli sent the Basque team through to the Champions League group stages for the first time in 16 years.
Athletic looked in trouble when Napoli's Marek Hamsik made it 1-0 to the visitors just after half-time, but roared on by a raucous 50,000 new San Mames crowd they turned things around with a double strike by Aritz Aduriz and clincher from subsitute Ibai Gomez.
The smiling Los Leones boss told his post-match news conference that it had been an emotional game, and his players were now able to celebrate the reward for all the hard work they had done preparing for two games in which they came through 4-2 on aggregate against a much more experienced Napoli team.
"There is huge emotion for all of us," Valverde said. "We have seen today who our players are, we have come back, against a team like Napoli, who played in this competition last year. Now we are really going to play the most prestigious competition in world football. For me to have lived this historic night, which everyone will remember, it is a privilege. We suffered, that happens in football, but there is immense and incredible joy now. There is a party going on in the dressing-room it is all a party. After everything we have put in through these months, all the preparations for this game, the players deserve this."
Valverde said the terrific home support, in what was the first game played in the stadium since its extensive redevelopment was fully completed last summer, had played a part in helping their side come through.
"The fans were extraordinary, we expected that," he said. "It was impressive when one stand was missing [last season], so imagine what it was like today. The fans came here ready to help us, to push us on, to enjoy it, and they share our victory at the end."
The former Espanyol, Valencia and Olympiakos coach said with another smile that he had not yet had time to think about which teams Athletic might be drawn against in Thursday's draw.
"I do not know the teams who there are," Valverde joked. "We have not had time to think about it. We will have to look at the pots. That was the last thing we were worrying about. Now we can compete, enjoy ourselves, and see how far we can go in the competition."
Valverde was momentarily serious when asked if Athletic might now look to sign Basque qualified players to strengthen the squad, specifically to take Real Madrid midfielder Asier Illarramendi on loan before the current transfer window shuts.
"It is difficult for us to sign players, everyone knows our philosophy," he said. "If there is a chance we look at it, but at moment I am happy with squad I have."
Napoli coach Rafael Benitez was understandably less inclined to smile when he then faced the press. The Spaniard's take on the game was that his side had gained an advantage in scoring in an important moment of the game, but then made a series of individual errors to throw that advantage away.
"When it was 0-0 at half-time, and then you score, the important thing is not to make mistakes and give strength to Athletic," Benitez said.
"I am unhappy as it was a difficult game, then it was going well for us, and we did not manage it as we should. What we have to do now is analyse the three mistakes so as not to repeat them again. We were up against a strong team, with intensity, who make you pay for mistakes."
Benitez did say that Napoli having 13 players at the summer's World Cup, compared to zero from Athletic, had been a disadvantage, before returning to his point that errors made by individual Napoli defenders had decided the tie.
"After the World Cup, Athletic had an advantage as they could concentrate and prepare better," he said. "We made some mistakes and were not relaxed on the ball. We had some good chances at 1-0, I saw 2-0 more likely than the equaliser. But the mistakes and the equaliser then made it difficult. On the pitch there were international players with sufficient experience to manage the game when they have an advantage. Defensive mistakes can happen, there is nothing else we can do but work on improving."