Asier Villalibre “Starting the league by winning is very important”
Scoring goals has been a serious problem for Athletic over the past few years. Aritz Aduriz’s retirement left an even bigger hole in the attack, but there is hope that Asier Villalibre is ready to take on a more important role moving forward. The 22-year-old came on strong at the end of last season and is looking forward to establishing himself at San Mamés.
“What I want is to play more minutes and have continuity,” Villalibre said during an interview with Fuera de Juego on Tuesday night. “I face this second year with more confidence than the last, I’m much better in that sense. I come from other preseasons in which I haven’t been important, I didn’t play so many minutes. In this one I’ve played a lot and I’m very grateful.”
Naturally, Villalibre has often been compared to Aduriz. The two play a similar style of football, though Villalibre just wants to focus on having his own career.
“I don’t have to think about being the replacement. Aduriz is a benchmark for me and I always try to learn from him, but there is only one Aduriz. I have to try to be the best Villalibre. I have many things to improve, but what I insist the most on and want to improve is having mobility in attack and generating spaces.”
Following Aduriz’s retirement Raúl García assumed the striker role. Fans believe Villalibre is the heir to the throne. “The future 9 of Athletic? I appreciate the words, but what I have to do is show it by playing well, trying to score goals, and improving day by day,” he said bluntly.
Athletic’s struggles in front of goal are a major concern. When asked about the solution, the Lezama product explained that scoring in just as much mental as it is physical. “What a player needs is confidence,” said the striker. “When you don’t have it the ball hits your foot and goes out. If you have it the ball goes in. The coaches give me confidence, but I have to demonstrate. Confidence is the most important thing.”
Originally, Athletic were scheduled to travel to Granada for the La Liga opener on Friday night. That game may now be rescheduled to the weekend following a dispute between the league and the Spanish Football Federation.
“We are waiting to know when the game will be played. When they put out the calendar they say it’s Friday, and now we don’t know. We have to wait but whenever it is, we will win and that’s it.”
Regardless of when the game is played a victory Villalibre promises that the team is ready to take the field. Kicking off the new season with a victory would be a huge result for the Basques
“I see the team very hungry to start winning and achieving the three points. We are very eager and excited. Starting the league by winning is very important. It will give us a great boost and that’s why we’re going to Granada, although it’s a great team that made things very difficult for us in the league and in the Cup.”
In addition to La Liga, Athletic will be competing in three other competitions. The Copa del Rey final remains the biggest prize, though having fans back in the stadiums is Villalibre’s biggest dream at this point.
“La Liga, Cup final, Super Cup, Cup…This season we have a tremendous opportunity to make history, but what we want most is to play at San Mamés with our fans. The biggest prize is going to be that. We need it. Starting the league knowing that you can’t go to San Mamés to cheer on the team, it doesn’t make you lose your enthusiasm but it does make you feel more subdued. It’s not the same to watch it on TV at home or in a bar. That’s the missing point.”
At the end of last season coaches were allowed to make 5 substitutions with matchday squads increased to 23 players. The changes will continue for the foreseeable future and Villalibre shared that it gives players more chances to see the field.
“It makes you more active, more attentive, because there are more possibilities to play. I’m not the one who decides whether or not I am a starter. I train 100% every day. I’ve had the entire preseason being able to train more than other teammates, but the one who decides is the coach.”
This preseason has been strange to say the least. With so many players unavailable due to injuries and illness, Gaizka Garitano called on the next generation to fill the gap. Younger players were given valuable minutes and some even made their case to join the first team.
“Athletic lives from the cantera and this preseason it has been demonstrated again. The casualties have been made up for by the youngsters and they have done well. Physically and with the ball they are very well. I coincided with Vicente, Morcillo, Vencedor, Luengo and Sillero in 2ºB with Bilbao Athletic. Morcillo is very offensive, with a spark and strong shots. He puts in many crosses, which is what he does best, and that is very important for our game.”
Of course, being without key players is never good. Iñaki Williams was one of six that tested positive for COVID-19 at the start of preseason. The forward returned in time to play one friendly but Villalibre isn’t concerned. “Physically, Williams is incredible,” he said. “Even if he’s stopped for 3 weeks, we know that in the next game he’s going to beat anyone running. No one has played 157 games in a row.”
On a personal level, Villalibre recognizes the pressure of living up to expectations. The time has come for him to take another step forward, but just putting on the Zurigorri shirt is motivation.
“I remember the first year at Gernika when my father would take me to Lezama every Wednesday after work, then by taxi. I have been lucky enough to be able to make it to the first team and all I feel is pride.”
Before the interview ended, Villalibre was asked about his beard that has become so popular with fans. “I started growing my beard to change my image, but it is becoming something iconic,” he admitted. Asier Villalibre has had the support of the fans since he was a teenager at Lezama and this season he has the ambition of becoming a star at San Mamés.