An Aritz Aduriz strike helped Athletic triumph over Valencia on away goals in the all-Spanish round of 16 tie and secure a place in the UEFA Europa League quarter-final draw.
Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, Gary Neville’s side produced a spirited opening 45 minutes which saw them net twice through Santi Mina and Santos, only for the 2015/16 campaign’s leading marksman to take his tally to eight courtesy of a majestic flicked assist from first-leg scorer Raúl García.
With a pristine Estadi de Mestalla pitch coming as a welcome relief following the rain-sodden San Mamés surface a week ago, the hosts set out to attack with energy and width, seeing their approach rewarded with Santi Mina’s 13th-minute opener as he pounced on a rebound following Álvaro Negredo’s saved effort.
Los Che were dominant and grabbed a second goal eight minutes before the break, Brazilian defender Santos rising unopposed to notch his first goal for the club with a superb header from José Gayà’s cross. Athletic’s troubles had already been compounded by the loss of captain Iker Muniain to injury, but Aymeric Laporte forced a brilliant stop from Mathew Ryan moments before half-time.
André Gomes and Gayà both had chances to forge a two-goal cushion for Valencia, before Athletic turned the tie on its head as García’s flick over the defence allowed Aduriz to poke home on 76 minutes. There was almost one last twist, but Paco Alcácer was denied at point-blank range by Athletic goalkeeper Iago Herrerín.
How far can Athletic go?
Their run of three straight away victories in the UEFA Europa League might have ended, yet they prevailed in a tense two-legged affair and Aduriz struck again. With the experienced forward in this kind of form, who would rule out a third European final for the Bilbao outfit?
Key man: Aritz Aduriz
The 35-year-old missed opportunities in the first leg and was not heavily involved in Athletic’s build-up play in either of the two matches, but he possesses the knack of netting when it matters. Ultimately his strike won the tie.