Atletico Madrid set a new club record for draws in a single LaLiga season on Sunday, as they were held by Athletic Bilbao on their return to action.

Playing for the first time since football in Spain was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Diego Simeone's side had to settle for a point on the road at San Mames.

Iker Muniain's delightful 37th-minute goal opened the scoring, though Atletico were not behind for long.

Just 129 seconds later, Diego Costa claimed his third goal of the season - and first since October - to bring the visitors level, though the 1-1 result does little to boost Atleti's hopes of a top-four finish.

They sit sixth in the table having drawn 13 of their 28 league games in 2019-20, already the most recorded in a solitary season in the club's history.

Simeone will hope for a more positive outcome when his Champions League quarter-finalists travel to Osasuna on Wednesday. 

Atletico Madrid were unable to enhance their top-four prospects with victory on their return to LaLiga, playing out a 1-1 draw at Athletic Bilbao.

Iker Muniain's delightful 37th-minute opener was cancelled out 129 seconds later by Diego Costa, who claimed his third goal of the season and first since October.

The striker paid tribute in his celebration to Atletico's women's team midfielder Virginia Torrecilla, who underwent successful surgery to have a brain tumour removed last month. Costa showed a shirt bearing her name.

Substitute Santiago Arias came closest to snatching all the points for Los Colchoneros, who sit sixth in the table on goal difference.

Marcos Llorente opened up Athletic with a fine diagonal throughball in the 12th minute, sending Yannick Carrasco scampering through to shoot just wide across goalkeeper Unai Simon, who briefly lost his footing.

Jan Oblak was uncharacteristically wobbly when he took two attempts to grasp Inaki Williams' 25th-minute header but the Slovenia international displayed his brilliant best when he kept out Yeray's glancing attempt at full stretch.

Oblak had no chance when Muniain dispatched a clever finish with the outside of his right boot into the bottom right corner.

Atletico sprung immediately from their mid-half slumber – Koke's cute pass leaving Costa to slide a finish beyond Simon.

That seemed to inspire a role reversal during the early stages of the second half, with Atletico enjoying plenty of attacking territory but Athletic keeping their visitors honest on the break as Yuri Berchiche crashed an effort into the side-netting.

Diego Simeone's anguish in the dugout was clear when Arias arrived unmarked at the back post 10 minutes from time, drawing a brilliant point-blank save from Simon.

What does it mean? Atletico away form still a worry

Simeone's side might have memorably prevailed at one of European football's great fortresses in their previous competitive match, but that victory at Anfield cannot obscure the fact that they have now won just one of their past 11 away games in LaLiga. They are level on points with Real Sociedad and Getafe in fourth and fifth respectively and such diminishing returns on the road are why their battle for Champions League football will probably go down to the wire.

Muniain and Garcia roll back the years

Lockdown has done nothing for anyone's conception of time and dates, but when Athletic's creative forwards took control of the first half, it was easy to imagine being somewhere during the early stages of the previous decade. Muniain – still only 27 – was irresistible at times, evoking memories of when he was a wonderkid and Spanish football's next superstar in waiting. Playing against the club he starred for in their 2013-14 title win, Raul Garcia proved a superb foil for the number 10.

Llorente ill-suited to number 10 duties

Marcos Llorente's two-goal heroics against Liverpool undoubtedly played a part in Simeone's decision to start him in an advanced role behind Costa. Although the Spain international's play was typically neat and he did not lack for work rate, the absence of his creative qualities from deep as the likes of Thomas Lemar and Alvaro Morata awaited second-half introductions was perplexing.

What's next?

Atletico are on the road again at Osasuna on Wednesday, when Athletic travel to struggling Eibar.

Atletico Madrid are not currently capable of playing with Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa in attack, according to Diego Simeone.

Costa only returned from three months out with a back injury shortly before the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, while Morata has scored 12 goals in 32 appearances this term. They have started together five times in all competitions in 2019-20.

Simeone will be unable to select the suspended Joao Felix when Atletico play their first game in over three months against Athletic Bilbao in LaLiga on Sunday.

The head coach has looked at using midfielder Marcos Llorente, who scored twice when Atleti eliminated Liverpool from the Champions League at Anfield before the coronavirus stoppage, as an attacker in a bid to give his team greater balance.

"We manage different situations and Marcos gives us important alternatives, where we can play with three in the middle and [Yannick] Carrasco as striker," said Simeone on Saturday.

"I think that Marcos has a very good physical condition and good finishing from behind the striker. He already showed it when some people thought taking out Costa for him at Anfield was a defensive change and he was key.

"On the possibility of putting Costa and Morata together, it is not the same as in pre-season. Now I cannot take advantage of both together because I do not have a team prepared to sustain the two forwards.

"I prefer to harness the power that each one has separately until at some point they can play together. That's why I explain why Alvaro and Costa do not play when Alvaro is available."

Simeone's assistant German Burgos will leave Atleti at the end of the season to pursue a career as a head coach.

"I have absolute gratitude to German, he is essential. I am grateful for the time German has given me and we have shared professionally and personally," said Simeone.

"It's a very important decision and he will face many challenges that will motivate him.

"Some of the players have already commented on what German has given us and when he finishes, we wish him the best."

Kieran Trippier is excited to resume the 2019-20 LaLiga season following the coronavirus pandemic, with the full-back also fully fit again following surgery on an injury that plagued him even before leaving Tottenham last year.

Spanish football is due to resume next week after a three-month hiatus, which came at a frustrating time for Trippier, given he had just returned to action following a lay-off.

Trippier had surgery on a groin issue in January and it was a problem he recently revealed caused him significant stress during his final season at Tottenham, criticising the club for putting off the operation.

Although he returned to action a few weeks before LaLiga was suspended, Trippier was still receiving treatment to aid his recovery, but that had to stop once Spain went into lockdown.

The England international acknowledged it was a struggle to retain fitness during the lockdown, but he and Atletico are excited to get going again, with Los Colchoneros set to resume their campaign away to Athletic Bilbao on June 14.

"For me personally, after my surgery, I was used to getting treatment every single day but obviously I couldn't get that at home," he said.

"It was difficult but always you find a way to train, keep yourself in the best possible shape so when you return, you're ready to start the competition again.

"I feel very good to be back. It was very difficult not seeing team-mates, staff, and training every single day. But everybody understands the circumstances of the time.

"Obviously everyone's excited. The team is just looking forward to getting ready for the game against Athletic and it's important that we start the season off again strongly and try to win as many games as we can from now until the end of the season."

The rest of the season will be played behind closed doors and Trippier is aware of how it feels to play in an empty stadium, though he believes Atletico will still feel the love from supporters watching in their own homes.

"I've played in some games where there have been no supporters before and it's different," he added.

"Obviously you want the fans there supporting you every single game, but everybody understands the circumstances at the moment and it's important that everybody is safe.

"We'll always try to find a way to win and the fans are always there watching on TV, so we have the full support from them back home."

Atletico are sixth in LaLiga heading into the final 11 matches of the season, however third-placed Sevilla are just two points better off than Diego Simeone's men.

"When you play the first match in old San Mames, you can say that you can die, it's crazy."

Born in Eibar – around a 50km journey to Bilbao in the Basque Country – Markel Susaeta epitomised what it meant to play for Athletic Bilbao.

Susaeta spent the majority of his career at Athletic, where he made 507 appearances – only four players in the history of the club have managed more, Jose Angel Iribar (614), Jose Francisco Rojo (541), Joseba Etxeberria (514) and Andoni Iraola (510).

The Spanish winger even wore the captain's armband and won the Supercopa de Espana in 2015 before departing his beloved Athletic in 2019, having first donned the iconic red and white stripes in 2007.

Susaeta made his goalscoring senior debut away to Barcelona 13 years ago and stepped out onto Sam Mames for the first time a fortnight later, scoring a free-kick in a 1-1 draw with Real Zaragoza.

"When you play the first match, you are in heaven. You never thought you could play in that stadium and the supporters are amazing – always helping the team," Susaeta told Stats Perform News.

Athletic are a team who continue to play by their own rules. The Basque-only policy has captivated football and the sporting world, with Los Leones only picking players from one region since 1912.

Despite football's transformation by globalisation, Athletic remain defiant to their roots – only those born or raised in the Basque Country, which is made up of four provinces in north-east Spain and three in south-west France, eligible to represent the club. Rivals Real Sociedad operated a similar policy until 1989.

While it may come across as a disadvantage, limiting Athletic in the transfer market, the Spanish team have never been relegated from LaLiga while adhering to the famed policy. They have lost stars over the years, but the region continues to be a breeding ground for talent.

"For the kids of Basque Country, Real Sociedad, Athletic, many, many kids… I think more kids want to play for Athletic Bilbao," Susaeta said. "When you go to the first division, all the players, it's difficult to keep all the players at Athletic because all the players aren't the same, different things for their future. Kepa [Arrizabalaga] went to Chelsea, [Ander] Herrera went to Manchester United, [Fernando] Llorente went to Juventus, Javi Martinez Bayern Munich.

"Many players they went to other big clubs but a lot of players, more than the players that go, they stay at Athletic. For that reason, Athletic in the last 12-13 years, play very good football, a very good level. One year we played in the Champions League, we won one Supercopa, we played in three, four finals for the Copa del Rey. It's very difficult but Athletic always does things well."

"Athletic are the most special team in the world for me, what can I say? The philosophy that the people that aren't from Basque Country, they love Athletic's philosophy because it's different to other teams from the world," Susaeta added. "The kids love Athletic, they only like Athletic Bilbao. They don't like Barcelona, Madrid, they like Athletic Bilbao. This love is different than the other clubs."

Susaeta is an example of Athletic's production line, which is now headlined by the likes of young stars Inaki Williams and Unai Nunez. The 32-year-old Susaeta came through the ranks, spending one season with farm team Basconia and another with the B team before being thrust into the first-team picture in 2007.

The one-time Spain international was a vital member of Athletic's stunning Supercopa de Espana triumph under former boss Ernesto Valverde five years ago – a 5-1 two-legged rout of Barca ending a 31-year wait for silverware.

A three-time Copa del Rey finalist, Susaeta also experienced Athletic's unforgettable journey to the 2012 Europa League final, with Marcelo Bielsa at the helm.

"With Marcelo, you play a very intense football. He always wants to play the ball, for example, he likes man-marking. It's a little bit crazy to keep the whole season with man-marking. We spent two years with him but with Marcelo, it was the best football I ever played," Susaeta said as he compared the two coaches.

"With Valverde, we played in the Champions League. It's more difficult because after Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid, it's a very crazy season. With Valverde, you're more regular in defending and attacking, all the team go together. It's different. But the best football, the more attractive football that I ever played was with Bielsa."

Athletic lost the all-Spanish Europa League decider in 2012, beaten 3-0 by Atletico Madrid in Bucharest. While Bielsa's men left Arena Nationala emptyhanded, their campaign was a memorable one, having outclassed Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in the last 16 – a shock 3-2 victory at Old Trafford the highlight.

It was a famous win for Athletic, who came from behind to record a first win on English soil and Susaeta said: "It's the one of the most important matches in my life. We played at Old Trafford and we played amazing football. That morning, with Bielsa, we trained for two hours, doing sprints. It was crazy.

"In the evening, we won playing amazing football. It was a very good memories because that year we won against very good European clubs but in the final we were tired, I don't know what happened but we couldn't win the final."

Susaeta was also fortunate to play in both the old San Mames and new San Mames, which opened in 2013.

"In the old San Mames, I played my first match, in that stadium, we played very good football with Bielsa – a crazy year with two finals," he added. "In the other San Mames, we played in the Champions League. In the two stadiums, I have very good memories. They are two very special stadiums."

Susaeta now finds himself playing for Melbourne City in Australia after a difficult spell with Japanese giants Gamba Osaka.

A January arrival, Susaeta had scored two goals and set up another for City – part of the City Football Group (CFG) – before the season was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked about a possible Athletic return after his unceremonious exit last year, Susaeta replied: "I don't want to see the future, I want to live the present. I'm very happy in Melbourne and Australia, it's a very good country and city. I'm very happy with my club and team-mates. My family is happy here and we want to stay here longer. Now it's very crazy the situation but I hope we can train again in a few weeks and finish the season in a few months.

"Japan was very difficult for me and my family because many things are different. Here we feel very good, we feel happy. My kids are happy in childcare. Here everything is perfect. I'm very happy in the football. For me, it's perfect. I'm very happy here and I hope I can stay here more years."

Gaizka Garitano has seen his Athletic Bilbao contract extended by another season after guiding the Basque club to the Copa del Rey final.

Garitano – previously Athletic's reserve coach – was appointed until the end of the 2018-19 campaign when Eduardo Berizzo was sacked with the team in relegation trouble after 14 matches.

The former Real Sociedad midfielder took Athletic up the table and into European contention to earn the opportunity to continue in the role for 2019-20.

And another impressive outing has seen Garitano secure a further 12-month extension.

Athletic endured a three-month winless run earlier this term but were 10th in LaLiga when the season was suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Crucially, Garitano's side had also reached a mouthwatering all-Basque Copa decider against rivals Real Sociedad.

"I am very happy for the confidence shown in me by the club," the coach said.

"This is the team that I have followed since childhood, from my heart. Running it is a joy and a responsibility.

"The experience lived this year in the Copa is magnificent and we have the opportunity to win a title. You have to stick with the positive things and try to improve."

Athletic Bilbao great Markel Susaeta has lauded former team-mate Aritz Aduriz following his retirement, hailing the star's longevity at San Mames and in Spanish football.

Aduriz was given a special send-off by Athletic on the hallowed San Mames turf last week after the 39-year-old retired – the coronavirus pandemic and a hip injury prematurely ending the forward's career.

Retiring at the end of 2019-20 had always been the plan for Aduriz, who netted 118 league goals for Athletic across three different periods and was the only player other than Lionel Messi to score in 15 successive LaLiga seasons after his stunning last-gasp bicycle kick against Barcelona in August.

Aduriz – a late bloomer – also enjoyed spells with Real Valladolid, Real Mallorca and Valencia, while he made his Spain debut in 2010 before earning an international recall six years later at the age of 35.

Susaeta, who amassed over 500 appearances for boyhood club Athletic before leaving in 2019, told Stats Perform News: "Aduriz always played a very good level, very good football.

"After the first seasons at Athletic, he went to Mallorca and in Mallorca he scored many, many goals. At Valencia, the same. But when he came to Bilbao at 31-32 years of age, he started scoring goals like a crazy man.

"Very good football level and in six years, it was amazing. Everything he touched was gold. The secret? I don't know. He is a very professional man, he ate very clean."

Susaeta played alongside Aduriz – who did not move to San Mames until he was already 19 – as Athletic stunned Spanish giants Barca in the 2015 Supercopa de Espana, the club's first piece of silverware in 31 years.

Aduriz scored a second-half hat-trick in Athletic's 4-0 first-leg rout of Barca before they earned a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou.

"I remember that final," Susaeta, who now plays for A-League side Melbourne City, said. "One of the most important moments of my football career. Amazing night because winning against Barcelona is very difficult if you play two games.

"At San Mames, we won 4-0 and it was an amazing night. Aduriz scored three goals and the other one was [Mikel] San Jose. In the second game at Camp Nou, we drew 1-1 and Aduriz again scored.

"The last trophy Athletic won was maybe 30 years ago and this trophy was very special for supporters, the players."

Having already decided to hang up his boots at the end of the campaign, Aduriz looked set for a fairytale farewell after Athletic earned a blockbuster Copa del Rey final showdown against Basque rivals Real Sociedad, however, the COVID-19 crisis has left the decider up in the air since March.

"For this pandemic, coronavirus, it is a very crazy moment for the world and football," Susaeta added. "The pain for him is very strong now and he couldn't play that final. But if Athletic win that final, Aduriz is like the other players. It's his trophy also."

While Susaeta and Aduriz flourished together on the field, it is their friendship outside of football that the 32-year-old winger cherishes most.

"I have many memories," Susaeta said. "I am a privileged man because I've given him the most assists during his career. Always when we played together, we played good, very good years.

"But for me, it's more important that we have very good memories outside of the pitch, outside football. We are very good friends. We usually go on holidays, for dinner with the families."

With Aduriz now in retirement, all eyes are on Inaki Williams – who signed a new nine-year contract in August – to lead Athletic into a new era.

Asked if Williams is the man to take Athletic forward, Susaeta replied: "Yes, because in the past he played very good football. Now he is the present.

"Inaki Williams is different than Aduriz. Inaki Williams is one of the fastest players in the world and Athletic and him use that condition."

Aritz Aduriz said his farewell inside an eerily quiet San Mames stadium was more than he deserved at the end of a storied career.

The 39-year-old announced his retirement this week after 20 years playing mostly in LaLiga with Athletic Bilbao, for whom he scored 118 league goals.

The Spain international striker was given a special send-off on the Athletic home pitch on Friday, with team-mates giving him and his family a guard of honour as he took one more walk on the turf.

A celebration of his career would likely have seen the stands packed with supporters were it not for health protocols during the coronavirus pandemic making such an occasion impossible.

Aduriz, though, thinks he has already received more than enough recognition.

"This is more than I think I deserve," he said. "I think I've had a load of tributes. I've enjoyed it so much here. I don't feel they have to say goodbye to me.

"I've had so much fun that this is more than I ever imagined.

"Athletic are special, different. Above all, there's a crazy human level that makes it like a gang competing against the rest of the world. That makes us different."

Aduriz chose to retire after doctors advised he needs hip replacement surgery, with the weeks during Spain's strict lockdown showing him the time was right to stop.

It had been hoped his final match would be in the Copa del Rey final against Basque rivals Real Sociedad, but Aduriz does not believe he would have been of much use to his side even if he tried to play.

"I'd been fighting for some time," he said. "After this lockdown, that was the end.

"The body has a limit and the hip made that fight unbalanced. These two months at home have been very difficult for the hip.

"The team is better off without me being there. I couldn't be there in these conditions."

Aduriz confirmed his retirement via a dignified social media post in which he told fans his goodbye was "just an anecdote" amid the trauma of the COVID-19 crisis.

He was similarly reluctant to feel downcast on Friday as he reflected on a career he never thought possible.

"It's a very beautiful day for me. It's not sad at all," he said. "I would never have imagined such a long and beautiful journey, from start to finish. It's a day to be happy and thankful, although it's not easy speaking in the middle of San Mames with so much silence!

"The hardest thing won't be not playing in these remaining 11 games [of the league season], nor in that much-loved and sought-after cup final. The hardest thing will be not being with this squad anymore. I'll miss you all so much. Thank you all for this journey. It's been wonderful, unforgettable.

"I liked football, but it was unthinkable that I'd get to play a game for Athletic. If I've reached this point in my life, aged 39, it's because I've done what I liked the most. I've had a great time."

We still don't know if the Copa del Rey final will go ahead this year, but already there is disappointment for Athletic Bilbao fans: Aritz Aduriz will not be playing.

On Wednesday, the striker announced his retirement from football, the decision ultimately forced upon him, with doctors recommending he have hip replacement surgery.

"Unfortunately, my body has said 'enough'," he wrote in a dignified social media post. "I can't help my team-mates the way I would like to, nor the way that they deserve. That is the life of a professional athlete. Simple, very simple."

We knew this was to be Aduriz's final season - he confirmed as much last year - but it feels the end has come too soon. The Copa final was supposed to be the curtain-call: an all-Basque meeting, a showdown between Aduriz's Athletic and Real Sociedad, the team of San Sebastian, his home town. It was a farewell that seemed too good to be true. So it proved.

Aduriz was not interested in pity, of course, when the coronavirus crisis has wrought so much terrible damage to Spain beyond the suspension of a football match. "I don't want you to worry about me, this is just an anecdote," he wrote. "Let's forget about the finals we dreamt about, because we will have time to say goodbye."

It might not have the fairy-tale ending, but we can still salute a player who re-wrote the storybook on modern strikers.

A LALIGA LIFE WELL LIVED

Aduriz played 443 times in LaLiga across 16 seasons, putting him fifth on the all-time appearance list.

He scored 158 goals, 118 of them for Athletic, and registered 49 assists. Among Spanish players in the 21st century, only David Villa (186) scored more often. His last was his best: a sumptuous overhead kick on the first day of this season to seal a 1-0 win over champions Barcelona.

These are the sort of numbers to expect from a 20-year career, one spent mostly with Athletic but also with Real Mallorca and Valencia. What sets Aduriz apart  - and endeared him to fans inside San Mames and beyond - was the wait to see him at his best.

Athletic are famed for their academy, a route to top-level unlike any other given the club will only use players of Basque origin, but Aduriz did not join until he was 19 and it was not until the age of 23, after a loan stint with Real Valladolid, that he felt a good career lay ahead.

The best strikers are increasingly explosive young stars. Erling Haaland (19), Kylian Mbappe (21), Lautaro Martinez (22) - these are the forwards craved by the elite. But Aduriz had to be patient to reach his peak. Very patient.

AGE IS BUT A NUMBER

Aduriz, along with Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos, is the only player to score in 15 consecutive LaLiga seasons. He reached double figures seven times in his 16 campaigns, and his best single-season tally was 20.

He managed that in 2015-16, when he was 35. This is where Aduriz stands out from most of his contemporaries: his best years came so late.

He twice finished as LaLiga top scorer, in 2014-15 (18 goals) and again in 2015-16, a season in which he scored two of his four career league hat-tricks. To reach peak efficiency in front of goal at that age is remarkable. It also led to Athletic's first trophy in 30 years: the 2015 Supercopa de Espana. Aduriz scored his side's four goals in a 4-1 aggregate thrashing of Barcelona.

His international career followed a similar course. Aduriz did not make his senior debut until he was 29, when he came off the bench for 13 minutes in a 3-1 Euro 2012 qualifying win over Lithuania. His second cap came six years later, when he scored in a 1-1 friendly draw with Italy. That same year, he was included in Vicente del Bosque's Euro 2016 squad, making three appearances in France. 

Aduriz's second and final Spain goal came in a 4-0 World Cup qualifying defeat of Macedonia on November 12, 2016, at the age of 35 years and 275 days. It made him the oldest goalscorer in Spain's history, surpassing Jose Maria Pena Salagui, who was 50 days younger when he scored against Portugal in 1930.

If smashing an 86-year record for the best international side of the 21st century doesn't say it, nothing will. Aduriz broke the mould, a centre-forward pushing boundaries when conventional wisdom suggested he should have hung up his boots long ago.

We didn't need the Copa final to tell us that.

Athletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz has announced his retirement from football.

The 39-year-old revealed in a social media post that he has made the decision after doctors advised him to have hip replacement surgery.

"The time has become," Aduriz's message began. "Many times, I have said that football will leave you before you leave it.

"Yesterday, the doctors told me to go to see the surgeon, sooner rather than later, to get a prosthetic to replace my hip and to try and go about my everyday life, as normally as possible.

"Unfortunately, my body has said 'enough'. I can't help my team-mates the way I would like to, nor the way that they deserve. That is the life of a professional athlete. Simple, very simple."

Aduriz had intended 2019-20 to be his last season and it seemed he would get the chance of a famous farewell, with Athletic set to face Basque rivals Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey final.

However, the suspension of the Spanish season due to the coronavirus pandemic means there is no certainty when, or even if, the Copa final will be played.

"Unfortunately, we are living through situations much more grim and painful; the pandemic that we are suffering from has left us with irreparable damage and we have to keep fighting it, together," he said.

"Therefore, I don't want you to worry about me, this is just an anecdote. Let's forget about the finals we dreamt about, because we will have time to say goodbye. And yes, the time has come to say goodbye, and this is how the road ends for me - unforgettable and marvellous, from beginning to end.

"Thank you, from the bottom of my heart."

Aduriz started his senior career with Athletic but also enjoyed spells with Real Valladolid, Real Mallorca and Valencia.

Something of a late bloomer in senior football, he did not join Athletic until he was already 19 and arguably played his finest football in his 30s.

He won his first Spain cap in 2010 before earning a recall six years later at the age of 35, winning a spot in Vicente del Bosque's squad for Euro 2016.

Having decided to end his career after 2019-20, he started the season by scoring a stunning overhead kick to seal a 1-0 win over Barcelona at San Mames last August.

In so doing, he became the only player other than Lionel Messi to score in 15 LaLiga seasons in a row.

However, he only played a further 13 times in LaLiga - all as a substitute - and failed to score again.

Unai Emery reckons Diego Simeone has got the Atletico Madrid job for life.

Unless Simeone decides to call a halt to his Wanda Metropolitano career, Emery cannot see the club parting ways with the charismatic Argentine boss.

That factor reduces Emery's chances of getting back into coaching at the highest level in Spain, as he searches for the next calling point in a well-travelled career following spells at Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal.

Simeone has spent over eight years in charge at Atletico, leading them to the 2013-14 LaLiga title and two Champions League finals.

Atleti have established themselves as the most consistent challengers to Real Madrid and Barcelona for the biggest prizes in Spain, which is why when Emery looks at potential landing spots in LaLiga, he finds it hard to see an opportunity coming up with the Rojiblancos.

"You go where they want you," Emery said to AS. "Now I live in Valencia to be with my son, but I'm registered in Madrid. I don't know where my next project will be, I am open to everything.

"What is clear is that Atletico have Simeone, who should be with the team until he wants to be, or his whole life, because there is no one who fits like him."

Emery first forged his reputation with successful spells in charge of Valencia and Sevilla, but the 48-year-old would not discount taking charge of either side's main city rivals, Levante and Real Betis.

"I'm a professional," Emery said. "My heart has always been with Real Sociedad, where I was for 10 years, but if Athletic [Bilbao] ever called me... I've been to Valencia, but if Levante called me... I have been to Sevilla, but if Betis called me...

"Wherever they want me and I feel recognised, I will be there, and that will be what matters."

Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao have agreed to ask that the Copa del Rey final be held with spectators present.

Sport in Spain has been on hold since March due to the coronavirus pandemic and there is no date scheduled for the resumption of LaLiga or the postponed Copa final.

Clubs were granted permission to return to hold individual training sessions from Monday, provided strict protocols were followed.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez said on Saturday he was optimistic sport could return soon but it would likely be behind closed doors.

However, the Basque rivals will request that measure does not apply to their Copa final, which was initially scheduled to take place at Estadio de la Cartuja in Seville on April 18.

A joint-statement published by Athletic and La Real read: "The presidents of Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, both finalists of the Copa del Rey for the 2019-2020 season, after meeting with the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation [RFEF], have agreed to ask RFEF for the final to be played with open doors, in public and in an official way, on a date to be determined and agreed between the three parties involved.

"The desire and will of both clubs has always been, now and before, to play and enjoy the final along with the supporters. This is what we would like most. A final to be lived with our supporters in the stands.

"At the same time, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club want the RFEF to guarantee that the final will be played as an official competition and will, therefore, be considered an official title.

"To this end, they have asked the general secretariat of the RFEF for the delegate committee of the RFEF General Assembly, whose next meeting will be held on Friday, to adopt a calendar amendment agreement that will enable the final to be held as an official title with the support and warmth of the fans of both teams.

"With this decision, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club wish to highlight one of the most prestigious and traditional sporting events that can be played around the world, unique in this edition, and to do so together with their fans, supporters, subscribers, members and partners, the true essence, and raison d’être of this wonderful sport."

Pozas, Bilbao, could seem a peculiar place for the average football fan on the day of 'Derbi Vasco', one of Spain's most famous rivalries.

Approximately one and a half kilometres in length, it's a street that's littered with bars and leads directly to the home of Athletic Bilbao: San Mames, it's grilled east stand and external screen visible between the final buildings.

It is on this street where Athletic supporters and their Real Sociedad counterparts meet up before the derby – not to scrap, as some might expect of such an occasion, but mingle side-by-side, sing and drink, and even swap club colours before walking to the stadium. Together.

"It's like a brotherhood," Mikel Mugalari, a lifelong Athletic fan, explains to Stats Perform. "Very rarely there's fights or incidents. We don't have that kind of hatred. It's a healthy rivalry."

It's little wonder this contest has been described as the "friendly derby", or "unique" as, although passion burns strongly on both sides, there is also a sense of camaraderie and unity.

Welcome to the Basque Country.

History on hold for the phantom final

The next time these two famous clubs meet will, in theory, be the Copa del Rey final, the first between Athletic and La Real in their current guises. It was supposed to take place on April 18 but, much like virtually all sporting events around the globe, it had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While clearly a momentous occasion, coverage of this final hasn't been entirely positive. The new format of the Copa del Rey – ditching two-legged ties for one-off meetings before the semi-finals – has been met with much praise on the one hand, giving smaller clubs a greater chance of progression, but simultaneously highlighted potential bias in the mainstream media.

"People are tired of so many Clasicos and want other teams to compete for the titles," La Real fan David Gonzalez says, pointing out 2010 was the last time neither of the 'big two' reached the final.

Mikel agrees. "If you talk to someone who really likes football, many say, 'Wow, finally a final without Barcelona and Real Madrid.' My kid was reading me the comments in the main national sports papers: most of the comments from Spain were saying it's not a final, no one will watch it, cancel it [because of coronavirus]. I couldn't imagine talk of cancelling [rather than postponing] a Madrid v Barca final because of the coronavirus situation. Now there's lots of talk about cancelling it. Why? Because it's two smaller teams from the north, who aren't even Spanish."

The Basque Country, or 'Euskadi' to the locals, was granted autonomy in 1979, four years after the death of Spanish dictator General Franco, who prohibited the region's Ikurrina flag after defeating the Basque government's army in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Although Mikel acknowledges, politically, Spain and Euskadi now find themselves in "a friendly situation", the lowest approval ratings of the Spanish monarchy are attributed to the Basque people and Catalonia, another excuse for a potential postponement of the final, he feels.

"It's going to be a Basque final, it's very important. In past finals there's been controversy because there's been whistles and yelling at the king," Mikel said. "That's one of the things they don't like about this final in Spain. They are saying it should be cancelled because of coronavirus, but [in reality] don't want to have a televised final that will be viewed by millions over the world, to have whistling and yelling towards the king. What we say is, change the name [of the Copa]. That's it, it's a tournament [it doesn't belong to the king]. Change the name."

A bittersweet success?

Both David and Mikel remember the respective glory days of their clubs in the 1980s when, for four years, the league title didn't leave the Basque Country.

For David, that period brought immense highs and crushing disappointment. From seeing La Real lose the title to Real Madrid in 1980 due to defeat at Sevilla on the penultimate day of the season, to then inflicting similar misery on Los Blancos a year later.

"It just seemed unfair to me, but then the next year we won LaLiga in Gijon with [Jesus Maria] Zamora's goal in the very last minute when Real Madrid, who had already finished their match, were already celebrating winning the title," recalls David, who spent his very first salary on becoming a season-ticket holder.

Similarly, the 80s bring back both great and sad memories for Mikel, his worst being the 1984 Copa final – in which Athletic actually beat Barca 1-0 – due to the apparent vilification of his team following the infamous mass brawl at the end.

But, although both men agree the 2019-20 Copa final is momentous for the obvious reasons, there is also a consensus that this is essentially as good as it gets now – there's little hope victory for either team will be the prelude to sustained success it may have been in the 80s.

"A few years ago, I would tell you yes, without hesitation," David replies when asked if final qualification is a sign of things to come for La Real, who were fourth in LaLiga before its suspension. "But today, unfortunately, football has changed a lot and for a club like Real Sociedad it is more difficult to maintain a good team like the one we have now."

"Until the Bosman rule's introduction [in 1995], Athletic had chances of winning, but now we have no chance of getting better than fourth, fifth, sixth," Mikel insists.

The 36-year wait

"We'll always consider the Copa to be our competition," Mikel says with a grin, as he highlights the fact only Barca have more than Athletic's 23 Copa wins.

Athletic celebrate their greatest successes in a unique way. La Gabarra, a barge, floats along the Nervion river with all the players and coaching staff aboard, the claimed title taking centre-stage, while supporters line the riverbanks and bridges to join in the party.

La Gabarra is an iconic symbol of the club but, while Mikel remembers the last time it was used, many supporters will have never experienced such an occasion, for the lack of a major title since 1984 – not including the 2015 Supercopa de Espana – has seen the tradition become legend. Younger generations are consigned to looking upon the photos decorating the walls of bars on Pozas and imagining.

If ever an occasion merited its long-awaited return to the water, it's success in an all-Basque final. Just don't expect the blue-and-white contingent of the "brotherhood" to show their faces should the Copa head to San Mames for a 24th time.

Passing the ball can sometimes look like the easiest thing in the world to do. At least, it does when these guys do it.

Our latest dive into the data of 2019-20 sees us look at the best playmakers in Europe's top-five leagues before the season was called to a halt.

We've deliberately broadened our approach to what constitutes a playmaker here – Gerard Pique doesn't often appear as a number 10, unless Barca are in real trouble – as the idea is to offer a wider consideration of those players who generally use the ball better than most when in possession.

To that end, we've looked at 12 different metrics to come up with the top performers of the campaign, again from among those to make at least 10 league appearances.

While some stars are not exactly strange to see in the list below, there is a handful of more surprising names, too...

 

THE TOP PLAYMAKERS IN EUROPE'S TOP-FIVE LEAGUES 2019-20:

BUNDESLIGA:

Most successful passes: Sven Bender (1,766)
Highest passing accuracy: Axel Witsel (94.1 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Joshua Kimmich (873)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: Axel Witsel (92.2)
Most passes ending in final third: Jadon Sancho (576)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Axel Witsel (88.4 per cent)
Most chances created: Christopher Nkunku (65)
Most big chances created: Thomas Muller (24)
Most assists: Thomas Muller (16)
Most assists from open play: Thomas Muller (15)
Most crosses/corners successful: Filip Kostic (71)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Dennis Geiger (50 per cent)

LALIGA:

Most successful passes: Gerard Pique (1,688)
Highest passing accuracy: Toni Kroos (93.6 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Sergio Busquets (957)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: Toni Kroos (92.4)
Most passes ending in final third: Lionel Messi (698)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Toni Kroos (90.3)
Most chances created: Jose Campana (58)
Most big chances created: Lionel Messi (22)
Most assists: Lionel Messi (12)
Most assists from open play: Portu and Lionel Messi (8)
Most crosses/corners successful: Jesus Navas (43)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Benat (55 per cent)

LIGUE 1:

Most successful passes: Marco Verratti (1,581)
Highest passing accuracy: Thiago Silva (95.5 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Marco Verratti (956)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: Thiago Silva (92.8 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Angel Di Maria (543)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Colin Dagba (86 per cent)
Most chances created: Dimitri Payet (87)
Most big chances created: Angel Di Maria (31)
Most assists: Angel Di Maria (14)
Most assists from open play: Angel Di Maria (10)
Most crosses/corners successful: Dimitri Payet (63)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Marco Verratti (54.6 per cent)

 

PREMIER LEAGUE:

Most successful passes: Virgil van Dijk (2,209)
Highest passing accuracy: John Stones (94 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Rodri (1,069)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: John Stones (93.9 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Kevin De Bruyne (740)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Ibrahim Amadou (93.3 per cent)
Most chances created: Kevin De Bruyne (96)
Most big chances created: Kevin De Bruyne (23)
Most assists: Kevin De Bruyne (16)
Most assists from open play: Kevin De Bruyne (14)
Most crosses/corners successful: Kevin De Bruyne (69)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Christian Atsu (47.1 per cent)

 

SERIE A:

Most successful passes: Fabian Ruiz (1,488)
Highest passing accuracy: Marlon Santos (94.1 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Fabian Ruiz (932)
Passing accuracy, opposition half: Eljif Elmas (91.5 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Luis Alberto (723)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Walace (89.7 per cent)
Most chances created: Luis Alberto (75)
Most big chances created: Luis Alberto (16)
Most assists: Luis Alberto (12)
Most assists from open play: Luis Alberto and Alejandro Gomez (9)
Most crosses/corners successful: Erick Pulgar (46)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Armando Izzo (54.6 per cent)

 

AND THE TOP 12:

Most successful passes: Virgil van Dijk (2,209)
Highest passing accuracy: Thiago Silva (95.5 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Rodri (1,069)
Passing accuracy, opposition half: John Stones (93.9 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Kevin De Bruyne (740)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Ibrahim Amadou (93.3 per cent)
Most chances created: Kevin De Bruyne (96)
Most big chances created: Angel Di Maria (31)
Most assists: Thomas Muller and Kevin De Bruyne (16)
Most assists from open play: Thomas Muller (15)
Most crosses/corners successful: Filip Kostic (71)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Benat (55 per cent)

 

With most of the world still operating under lockdown conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic, most professional sport is on hold for the foreseeable future.

Given the outbreak occurred at a particularly inopportune moment for top-level football in Europe, the situation has bred uncertainty across most leagues – including Spain's LaLiga.

Competitions in Europe are facing the question of whether finishing the season, regardless of the impact it may have on future campaigns, should be the priority once normality returns.

The current focus does appear to be on concluding the 2019-20 campaign. However, even with Euro 2020 pushed back by 12 months, clubs and leagues are still having to work to tight schedules, with UEFA hoping seasons finish by the end of June.

While the discussion over how to complete the schedule continues, the Stats Perform AI team have crunched the numbers behind the scenes.

With all of the division's teams having completed 27 of 38 matches, their goal was to simulate how the rest of the season would pan out if the games were played now to produce a predicted 2019-20 table.

The statistical model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table.

BARCELONA CROWNED CHAMPIONS WITH 83 POINTS

The results in the statistical model see Barcelona crowned champions with a final total of just 83 points.

With 11 games to play, they presently lead rivals Real Madrid by two points, a gap that is predicted to have increased to four by the conclusion of the campaign, giving Quique Setien a first league crown.

Such have been the struggles of the big two this season, the final tally would be the lowest points recorded by a team to win the LaLiga since Fabio Capello's Madrid.

That team defeated Barca by virtue of their superior head-to-head record in a dramatic finish to the 2006-07 campaign, when the two sides accumulated 76 points.

It also suggests the chasing pack missed a rare opportunity to strike on a down year for both Clasico rivals, which will frustrate 2014 champions Atletico Madrid, who spent big on Joao Felix.

REAL MADRID FALL FOUR POINTS SHORT

The likelihood of Barca winning the title is 70.1%, with Real Madrid's chances rated at 29.9%. No other team is in with a chance of topping the table, according to the model.

But Zinedine Zidane's men are unlikely to face a challenge for second place, meaning they at least improve on their third-place finish from the 2018-19 season.

That third spot is poised to be grabbed by Atletico, who have a projected final points total of 65 and a 41.6% chance of claiming the position.

Atletico's closest challengers for third are predicted to be Sevilla (who are given a 26.1% chance) and Getafe (16.8%), with just two points separating those three sides in the final reckoning.

Diego Simeone would be thrilled with third place given his side went into the coronavirus-enforced break down in sixth, with Real Sociedad (9.1%) and Valencia (5%) the other teams in the mix.

UCL HEARTBREAK FOR LA REAL & GETAFE AS SEVILLA CLINCH 4TH

Sociedad and Getafe go into the break dreaming of a Champions League place amid fine seasons, but they are the two teams who will be worst affected by Atletico's predicted surge.

As part of a thrilling finish in the race for the top four, they are set to suffer heartbreak as Atletico pass them and they fall agonisingly short of catching Sevilla, who went into the halt in action sitting third.

Sevilla are anticipated to finish with 64 points, just one behind Atletico and one ahead of Getafe. 

Sociedad are then a further two behind Getafe with 61 as they are forced to settle for sixth, with Valencia staying in seventh on 59.

The four teams scheduled to finish between fourth and seventh all have a greater than 10.7% chance of finishing fourth, with none greater than Sevilla's 28.5%, so one bounce of the ball in a key game could still make an enormous difference.

Villarreal are predicted to finish in their current position of eighth, though they are given a 1.3% probability of breaking the top four.

Athletic Bilbao pass Granada for ninth position as Real Betis and Levante narrowly miss out on a spot in the top half.

Osasuna drop from 11th to 13th, where they are predicted to finish one point above Deportivo Alaves.

ESPANYOL SUFFER THE DROP AFTER 26 YEARS IN TOP FLIGHT

Mallorca, Leganes and Espanyol are the current bottom three in LaLiga and all are forecast to suffer relegation.

Espanyol have been in the top flight since 1994 but they go into the break six points adrift of safety and the model predicts they will be unable to make a great escape.

They are forecasted to collect 13 points from their last 11 games, but that is not even enough to get them off the bottom of the standings, highlighting the scale of the task they have ahead of them.

Similarly, Mallorca (36 points) and Leganes (35) are not expected to pick up enough victories to secure survival.

That means Celta Vigo, presently just one point clear of the drop zone, are predicted to survive with a final tally of 40, giving them a four-point cushion.

Celta are credited with 14 points between now and the end of the season to finish just behind Eibar (15th) and Real Valladolid (16th).

That means they would avoid a return to the Segunda Division, which is where they started the last decade.

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