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Athletic edge closer to European berth

Athletic Bilbao continued their march towards UEFA Champions League football next season with a dominant 3-0 home victory over Malaga.

Aritz Aduriz scored at the start of each half as Ernesto Valverde’s side made light work of the visitors, and Ander Herrera hit the third goal with half an hour remaining, with the help of an error by Malaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero. The win sees Athletic maintain their six-point gap over Sevilla, who are their nearest challengers for fourth spot in the Primera Division. Malaga suffered their 15th defeat of the season, but have little concern of falling into the relegation zone, still a comfortable seven points above the bottom three.

The Basques needed just four minutes to take the lead, Aduriz losing his marker to head in Markel Susaeta’s out-swinging corner at the near post. Athletic then saw two penalty appeals turned down – one for a handball by Weligton, the other when Aduriz went over in the area – before creating a chance which could have lead to the second goal.

Erik Moran’s flicked header put Aduriz through on goal ten yards out, but the striker’s volley went inches past the post. Schuster’s side were mere spectators as Athletic exerted total control on the game, dominating possession and never looking vulnerable to a Malaga counter.

No sooner had the second half started and Athletic doubled their advantage. Herrera won the ball back in midfield and accelerated to the edge of the area, sending a pass with the outside of his boot to Susaeta, who arrowed the ball across for Aduriz to pass into the net. It was the striker’s 12th goal of 2014, which makes him the second most prolific forward in the league since the turn of the year, only behind Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.

Aduriz then began his bid for a third goal. First he trapped a long ball up field with one touch but could not keep his second touch under the bar, and then he saw his volley fly straight into the arms of Caballero. The third goal arrived just after the hour mark, but it was not Aduriz who scored it.

In a move that appeared to have been rehearsed on the training ground, Susaeta chipped a corner to Ander Iturraspe, who flicked a header out towards Herrera on the edge of the area. The midfielder did not get the power he would have wanted to on his volley, but his soft effort slipped through the hands of Caballero and over the line.

Athletic maintained their dominance, while Malaga’s only chance of note in the remaining half hour was a scuffed header from Roque Santa Cruz that trickled well wide of goal. Aduriz might have got a hat-trick had Athletic been awarded a penalty when Iker Muniain was pushed over in the area by Eliseu, but the three goals and points mean Athletic are firmly in the driving seat to return to the Champions League for the first time in 18 years.