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Xabi Alonso, Fernando Llorente and the Best Basque Players: A Starting XI

Michael CernaCorrespondent IMarch 9, 2012

Xabi Alonso, Fernando Llorente and the Best Basque Players: A Starting XI

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    With Barcelona’s massive success in recent years, Catalunya has gotten well-deserved praise for breeding superstars at the club and national level.

    Barça’s famed La Masia academy has been able to produce a slew of top talents.

     

    However, Spain’s Basque region, home to three La Liga teams, also deserves praise for consistently churning out talented players.

    Beyond Athletic Bilbao’s notable cantera, other clubs in Northern Spain also rely primarily on their youth academies to compete in La Liga.

    Manchester United and Premier League fans recently saw the best the region has to offer, but the talent goes well beyond Athletic Club.

    What follows is the starting 11 for the best Basque players currently playing in Europe. As you read through this list, you will see that some of Europe’s most exciting, young talent comes from Basque Country.

Keeper: Gorka Iraizoz, Age: 31 (Athletic Bilbao)

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    Aside from a short stint in Barcelona with Espanyol, Iraizoz has spent nearly his entire career in Basque Country.

    Modeling himself after Athletic Bilbao’s legendary keeper, José Angel Iribar, Gorka has become one of Spain’s most consistent, respected and reliable keepers.

    The all-black sporting Iraizoz is one of the major reasons the Lions are in contention for a Champions League spot this season. 

    He is also a major reason that Athletic Club have made it to this year’s Copa del Rey final against Barcelona. He has allowed only three goals in the tournament, the fewest of any club in the quarter finals and beyond.

    See this for an example of his talents.

    Honorable Mention:  Asier Riesgo (Osasuna)

Left Back: Nacho Monreal, Age 26 (Malaga)

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    Once a target of Arsene Wenger and Liverpool, the former Osasuna man moved to Malaga last summer after the Spaniards won the battle for his signature.

    Monreal has been one of the only positives of an atrocious defense.

    Malaga should continue their big-spending ways this summer on defense so that Monreal can once again show why he was so sought after when he first came out of Osasuna’s youth ranks.

    Honorable Mention: Asier del Horno (Levante)

Center Back: Javi Martinez, Age: 23 (Athletic Bilbao)

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    Javi is finally getting his respect thanks to Marcelo Bielsa creating a more formidable Athletic Bilbao.

    At 23 with only a handful of national team appearances to his name, Martinez is being chased by the biggest clubs in Europe including Barcelona, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Real Madrid.

    Under Joaquín Caparrós, Martinez showed that he can be a rock in the midfield.

    Now under Bielsa, he has shown to be the most versatile part of one of Europe’s most exciting clubs by slotting into the center back position.

    Technically gifted enough for Spain, but physical enough for England (as he proved in the Europa League clash against Manchester United), Javi Martinez’s career has no limits.

    Honorable Mention: Fernando Amorebieta (Athletic Bibao)

Center Back: Iñigo Martínez, Age: 20 (Real Sociedad)

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    Now famous for his two halfway line goals, Martinez makes this list more on potential since he is far from a finished product.

    This young defender has already impressed in his time as a first choice player in Sociedad's senior side and looks to attract Vicente del Bosque's eye in the next few years.

    A technically gifted defender, Iñigo also has good heading ability, anticipation and is a great passer. Also able to play at left back, he has even already attracted the attention of Pep Guardiola.

    Very physical for a player his size (176 cm), his physicality could see some English clubs giving him a look soon.

    Honorable Mention: Mikel González (Real Sociedad)

Right Back: César Azpilicueta, Age: 22 (Marseille)

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    With much due respect to Andoni Iraola, who is arguably better, Azilicueta has shown incredible potential even despite his major injury.

    The other half of Osasuna’s former outstanding pair of full backs, it was Marseille who won this Spaniard's signature.

    After missing all of nearly all of last season, the former Pamplona converted winger is now being sought after by the likes of Chelsea.

    If the English side is looking for an attack-minded right back to replace Bosingwa, they would be wise to add more Spanish talent to their side and Azpilicueta is one of the most exciting and promising young defenders in Europe.

    Honorable Mention: Andoni Iraola (Athletic Bilbao)

Midfielder: Xabi Alonso, Age: 30 (Real Madrid)

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    Probably the most recognizable player on this list, Xabi Alonso is one of the best passers in the world and has shown his quality at the biggest stages in football.

    After leaving his boyhood club, Real Sociedad, Xabi Alonso chose Liverpool over Real Madrid as his next destination.

    During his time in England, Alonso was considered one of the best midfielders in the world.

    To cap off his first season, Xabi led Liverpool in one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history.

    Often overlooked and under-appreciated due to his sharing the pitch with Xavi, Xabi was one of the integral pieces that led Spain to its first World Cup in 2010 and is a mainstay at Real Madrid as part of the second Galacticos era.

    With a Liga trophy lined up for this season and possibly a second CL title on the way, there is little left for Xabi to prove in his career.

    Honorable Mention: David Zurutuza (Real Sociedad)

Midfielder: Mikel Arteta, Age: 29 (Arsenal)

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    The Spanish national would finally be reunited with childhood friend, Xabi Alonso, in this starting XI.

    If he were born 10 years earlier, Arteta would get much more praise and recognition than he does today. Unfortunately for him, he tried playing in a Spanish midfield that was going through its Golden Generation.

    One of the more well-travelled Basque players in the country, Arteta has played in four different European leagues.

    Between his two stints in Spain, he spent time in France and Scotland. North London is now fortunate enough to watch him play every weekend.

    Arteta is also one of the few Basque players to spend time in Barcelona’s system.

    Honorable Mention: Pantxi Sirieix (Toulouse)

Midfielder: Ander Herrera, Age: 22 (Athletic Bilbao)

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    A relative unknown amongst Spanish midfielders before moving to Bilbao this season, Ander has become somewhat of a poster child for Marcelo Bielsa’s transformation of Athletic Bilbao.

    The first matchup between Bilbao and Barcelona ended up being the coming out party for Ander.

    Ander opened the scoring and put in a man of the match performance. He looked very confident sharing the same pitch as Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas.

    That confidence later made him correctly predict a victory against Manchester United.

    As Ander’s development continues, he could soon be one of La Liga best midfielders.

    Honorable Mention: Xabi Prieto (Real Sociedad)

Right Winger: Xabi Prieto, Age: 28 (Real Sociedad)

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    One of the more underrated players in football, Xabi Prieto has been an anchor in Sociedad's midfield for years.

    A PK specialist with incredible dribbling ability and great vision to boot, it is no wonder why Liverpool was linked to him just last year.

    One of the best Spanish players to never have been capped, Xabi has shown incredible loyalty to Real Sociedad.

    He stayed with the club for three seasons while they were relegated to Segunda B.

    Prieto has spent his entire professional career, nearly fifteen years, at Real Sociedad and is one of the most respected players in Basque Country.

    Honorable Mention: Markel Susaeta (Athletic Bilbao)

Left Winger: Iker Muniain, Age: 19 (Athletic Bilbao)

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    Dubbed “the Spanish Messi” when only 16 years old, Muniain already looks like one of the most dangerous wingers in Europe.

    This teenager has wreaked havoc on defenses not only in La Liga, but everywhere he steps onto the pitch. In Man United's Europa League match, Rafael learned the hard way that Muniain is not to be underestimated.

    He is one of the most exciting young players in football and is part of what many Athletic Bilbao fans hope will be their Golden Era.

    Muniain is highly sought after by Europe's best clubs—who are hoping that they don't make the same mistake by waiting that they did with Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez.

    Honorable Mention: Aritz Aduriz (Valencia)

Striker: Fernando Llorente, Age: 27 (Athletic Bibao)

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    El Rey León (the Lion King) needs little introduction. He is the face of Athletic Bilbao and, in some ways, Basque players in general.

    Considered by some to be the greatest Athletic Bilbao player in history, Llorente is one of the three most popular Basque strikers ever, along with Valencia’s Mundo Bilbao's own Zarra.

    He is best known for his deadly headers, but also has great athleticism and agility as well as a killer instinct. He is already two goals away from his personal record of 23 with nearly three months to play.

    With Llorente starting the prime of his career, Athletic Bilbao should expect great things from the Lion King.

    Honorable Mention: Imanol Agirretxe (Real Sociedad)

Coach: Unai Emery, Age: 40 (Valencia)

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    Who better to lead a club of  talented young players rather than a group of superstars?

    Unai Emery manages Valencia as one of the best and most tactically-gifted coaches in Europe.

    He has been forced to sell his best players after each season over the last three years.

    But that has not stopped him from keeping Valencia near the top of La Liga.

    He has put them in the Champions League every season barring his first.

    Enormously respected by players and coaches alike, fans dream of seeing what Emery can do with more control over decisions and more money to build his squad.

4-2-3-1

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    So what does this squad look like?

                          Iraizoz

    Azpilicueta--Martinez--Iñigo--Monreal

                Arteta-----Xabi Alonso

            Prieto-----Herrera-----Muniain

                         Llorente

    With two attacking fullbacks, lots of speed and versatility and great passing ability all over the pitch, this would be a fun team to watch.

Conclusion

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    The cantera policy used by Athletic Bilbao is viewed as highly respectable by some and foolish, even racist by others.

    Regardless of one’s opinion of fielding only Basque players, there is no denying that some of La Liga’s and Europe’s most talented players come from Basque Country.

    How would this team do against Catalunya's Best Eleven?

    What about against Castile's Best Eleven or the "Best of the Rest"?

    Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

    I welcome and appreciate all feedback.

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