Athletic Club began their Europa League group stage on Thursday when they traveled to Germany to take on Hertha Berlin. This match is, on paper, the toughest away game of the group for the Lions who were able to earn a point from a scoreless draw. It was a case of two halves with Athletic dominating the first and the home side in control of the second. Still, neither side was able to break the deadlock in a match that easily could have gone either way.
Over the past few years Athletic Club has struggled away from home in a big way. The players have been determined not to let that happen again and on Thursday night against Hertha Berlin in Germany, the Lions got off to a very strong start. Just seconds into the game Iñigo Córdoba was played through and took a shot from a tight angle. The keeper did well to save but the visitors were awarded a corner. That cross was cleared out but then the ball was played over the top of the defense to Aritz Aduriz who got a boot to it but once again the keeper was there to make a miraculous save.
While the Lions were attacking well, it was their defensive organization that was most impressive. Mikel San José constantly dropped deep to provide coverage while Mikel Vesga and Iker Muniain were able to roam around the midfield and create chances. At one point Muniain dribbled past three defenders and was played in on goal but a falling defender stopped the ball with his hand. However, the referee did not see it and play was not stopped. Minutes later the 24-year-old would put in a curling effort on goal that was punched out for another corner kick.
Hertha Berlin continued to play very passive football, waiting for their chances to materialize. Every time they sent players forward in attack the Lions did well to handle their crosses, but Iago Herrerín was called upon to claim a few crosses himself. The best chance of the first half came when Athletic had a beautiful layoff in the box and the ball fell to Iker Muniain with only the keeper to beat. The Lezama Captain blasted a shot at goal but watched as the ball flew just inches wide of the far post. The Lions should have been ahead, but they weren’t.
The Germans picked up some steam in the dying moments of the game through some great linkup play and possession. Still, Athletic’s defense held strong and didn’t give away anything easy. Hertha found themselves with balls in the box a few times but players like Mikel Balenziaga and Aymeric Laporte did well to clear the ball before anything dangerous could happen. Without any stoppage time the whistle sounded with both sides locked in scoreless draw and needing something to break the deadlock in the next 45 minutes.
It was the home side that came out in the second half with all of the energy and momentum. For the opening 15 minutes the Germans were constantly in attack and had Athletic pinned in their own final third. Kalou beat his defender on three separate occasions to get a good look at goal but twice his shot was blocked while the other saw Iago Herrerín make a brilliant save. Two more chances came into the box and Herrerín was there to to keep the hosts off the scoreline both times.
Eventually play settled down and both sides looked to keep possession and build up an attack. Athletic continued looking for Iñaki Williams down the right wing but crosses into the box just were not working for the Lions. Meanwhile, Hertha were most dangerous on the counter and were not afraid to take on a defender directly. At one point a turn in the box saw Aymeric Laporte take down an attack but the referee waved play on. It easily could have been a penalty so the Lions got lucky, much like Hertha’s handball in the first half.
In the dying minutes Genki Haraguchi got a breakaway on goal but was chased down by Aymeric Laporte. The defender made a last-ditched tackle while Herrerín left his line and the ball was cleared for a corner. The Lions were able to kill off the three minutes of stoppage time and the final whistle blew for a scoreless draw in Berlin. In truth, either side could have won the match because they both missed chances and could have had a big call overturned. Still, Athletic Club will be happy to take away a point from their toughest road match of the group stage.
Athletic Club XI: Iago Herrerín, Iñigo Lekue, Xabi Etxeita, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel Balenziaga, Mikel Vesga, Mikel San José, Iñigo Córdoba (Raúl García 70′), Iker Muniain (Ager Aketxe 90′), Iñaki Williams (Markel Susaeta 85′), Aritz Aduriz