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JUPP HEYNCKES has had to get used to the financial realities of the current age of football at Athletic Bilbao, although they retain the status as Basque's number one team.

They are in danger of losing this crown to Real Sociedad and it would appear that Heynckes will have to add consistency to the talent he has at his disposal if Bilbao are not to slip further down the table.

Having never been relegated from the Primera Liga, a place in the bottom three is still out of the question for Bilbao, but in the same vein, their place in the elite of the Spanish league is under question.

Talismanic striker Ismael Urzaiz remains with Bilbao following an unseemly summer that saw him attempt to find a new club, only to find that his demands put his suitors off, including the likes of Sunderland and Rangers.

Having eventually read the writing on the wall, Urzaiz decided to sign a new contract with Bilbao and once again will be the focal point of their attack.

The goalkeeping department does not look as strong as previous years, although the defence is bolstered by the acquisition of Aitor Karanka from Real Madrid.

With Julen Guerrero and 25-year-old stand-out from last season Tiko in midfield, Bilbao will certainly have their share of flair and set-piece ability, but the reliance on Urzaiz and Joseba Etxeberria up front could mean that Athletic are a little too formulaic.

Given the worldwide nature of football, Bilbao's reliance on Basques only is a testament to tradition, although they have in the past certainly bent the rules as to how to classify where players are from.

However, with the likes of Sociedad catching them up, mutterings of abandoning the Basque-only rule are beginning to gather pace and the 2002-03 season could well go a long way to deciding how this argument ends.

Planetfootball prediction: 10
Last season: 9

Star Man: Tiko
One to watch: Ander Murillo

Ins: Aitor Karanka (Real Madrid)

Outs: Urraka (Burgos), Cuellar (Elche), Alkorta, Roberto Rios and Imaz (retired)