Bielsa shines in the spotlight
It speaks volumes for the job Marcelo Bielsa has done at Athletic Bilbao that when reports started emerging last week that Pep Guardiola was about to leave Barcelona the Argentinian was immediately installed by media and bookmakers as favourite to take over at the Nou Camp.
Ultimately Barcelona promoted from within, with assistant coach Tito Vilanova to replace the record-breaking Guardiola, but there remains little doubt that Bielsa's stock in the game is sky high right now after leading Athletic to within sight of a trophy double in just his first season at San Mames.
It might have been considered something of a risk last summer when Athletic decided not to renew the contract of long-serving coach Joaquin Caparros following the election of new president Josu Urrutia.
Caparros took over a side that had avoided relegation by just one point in 2007 and during his four years in the hotseat helped the Basque club reach their first Copa del Rey final since 1985 before last term guiding them to their first top-six finish in eight years.
And in turning to Bielsa, Athletic were appointing a man whose only previous coaching experience in European football was a six-match spell with Espanyol in 1998, and who had spent much of the last dozen years in charge of national teams, first with Argentina and then with Chile. However, the decision to appoint the wily tactician has proved a masterstroke.
Chile's upward trajectory
The vastly experienced Bielsa returned to Spain having earned himself hero status in Chile in his previous post. Renowned for his idiosyncratic mannerisms and coaching style, which sees him combine obsessive attention to detail and innovative ideas with a penchant for high tempo attacking football, Bielsa sparked a dramatic reversal of fortunes with La Roja after being appointed in 2007.
Taking over a team dogged for years by infighting, scandal and under achievement, Bielsa helped turn Chile into an entertaining and effective outfit that would end up finishing second in the CONMEBOL zone to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ after an absence of 12 years.
In South Africa, Chile progressed through the group stage following victories over Honduras and Switzerland before finding their passage blocked by Brazil in the last 16, with the five-time world champions progressing 3-0.
Bielsa quit that post in February 2011 citing a difference of opinion with the Chilean football association, but the South American country's loss has most certainly been Athletic's gain.
The 55-year-old had a less than auspicious start at San Mames, with Athletic picking up just one win from their opening seven matches in Europe and the Primera Division.
Lions' rapid progress
The Lions have come a long way since then, however. In La Liga they are in the thick of the fight for European places heading into the final rounds of the season, but it is in the cup competitions where Bielsa's men have really shone.
They will contest their second Copa del Rey final in four years when they take on Barcelona at the end of May, while the Basque side will grace a European final for the first time since 1977 when they face Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Europe League showpiece next week.
Athletic, whose last piece of silverware came back in 1984, have gained plaudits far and wide during their run to Bucharest, which has seen them knock out Manchester United, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon in hugely entertaining fashion.
Speaking ahead of their quarter-final first leg, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said of Bielsa: "I admire his work because I see the emergence of a very good Bilbao side.
"They are very determined and organised, with a great belief in themselves. That is the hallmark of their coach. He has instilled these qualities in his team. We know how difficult a game it is going to be for us. This is the best Athletic team I have seen for some years."
Ferguson's fears proved well founded with Athletic outstanding in winning 3-2 at Old Trafford and 5-3 on aggregate.
Sporting coach Ricardo Sa Pinto echoed similar thoughts ahead of his side's semi-final against Athletic, praising the Basque side's style of play - which has been linked to Barcelona's - and adding of his counterpart: "Three of the best coaches in the world are in the Spanish league - Jose (Mourinho), Pep (Guardiola) and Bielsa. He has installed his own identity and a different type of play to which I faced from Athletic as a player."
Guardiola is also a confirmed fan of Bielsa, describing the Argentinian as "the best coach on the planet" in the wake of Athletic's Europa League success over Manchester United.
Those comments would suggest Barcelona might not have gone too far wrong turning to Bielsa to replace Guardiola this summer, but the fact they did not can only be good news for Athletic, who will be hoping their decision to seek a new direction last summer will pay handsome dividends - both over the next few weeks and beyond.