28th October 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
Whenever Mikel Rico steps out onto the pitch, you can guarantee the tigerish enforcer will do absolutely everything in his power to help his team.

And in Athletic Bilbao's pulsating clash with Real Madrid, this was most definitely the case. Even though the Basque outfit unfortunately succumbed to a late Alvaro Morata strike to lose the match 2-1, Rico's relentless work rate, insatiable appetite for the contest and unheralded intelligence saw him cut an instrumental figure throughout.

From his central midfield position, alongside Mikel San Jose, whom he's developed a terrific understanding with, the 31-year-old's determination, intensity and aggression ensured life was extremely challenging for their highly fancied opponents.

In a match where he applied four successful tackles, two interceptions and one clearance, the former Granada warrior set the tone beautifully for his teammates to follow, as his undoubted leadership qualities shone through time and time again. Rico was forever communicating, gesturing and encouraging his teammates, using his tremendous experience to great effect. Indeed, just playing alongside the inspirational hardman must be a terrific motivator for his mates to push that little bit harder.

To go with the guts and exhaustive nature of his game, it must be said that the Biscay born midfielder also operates with a great deal of smarts. This was certainly true in this contest too, for his awareness of when to press, hold his position, pick up a marker or drop back was impeccable. It needed to be too against Zinedine Zidane's multidimensional outfit, who possesses a wide range of attacking threats.

Rico got the little details spot on, as he yet again adhered perfectly to the role his coach, Ernesto Valverde, entrusted him with. Some terrific examples of such details that he executed masterfully were in situations when Madrid had the ball on the right wing and Rico would press hard, along with his colleagues, or track Isco, which forced Los Merengues into a turnover or to pass backwards. In addition, when the home side looked to pass out from the back, he would closely monitor Mateo Kovacic, especially in situations where he looked to drop deep and receive possession from keeper Keylor Navas, so he couldn't act as a key orchestrator in implementing his team's passing game.

Indeed, when you factor in the way he competently passed the ball and took up wonderful positions in which to connect his side's attacks, Rico's immense tactical acuity and brilliant understanding of the game showed why he's such an important member of Valverde's squad.

Having a player like Rico, who's happy to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the team, certainly gives Athletic so much balance and structure in a tactical sense. While he may not be the most technically gifted player at Los Leones, there's no doubting he makes up for his shortcomings in this regard with his other, less noticeable strengths.

Reliable, uncompromising and full of quality, it's little wonder he's adored by the San Mames faithful and respected so vehemently by his manager and his peers. Since joining Athletic from Granada in 2013 for €3 million, a move that he described as a dream and something that brought him great pride, for it represented a return to the club he left 10 years prior as an 18-year-old, it's been heartening to see how well he's done.

"The dressing room is incredible, I wanted this. The club is special, unique. I am in love, I enjoy it a lot. At the beginning, it was difficult to adjust to the pressure of playing in a team of people that are my family. It is difficult it see yourself play in front of 40,000 fans, it's a little different to what I have done. It wasn't easy for me on a personal level," explained Rico of his time in Bilbao.

Whenever Athletic go into battle, there's no one else they'd rather have by their side than their evergreen veteran. After all, they know he'll always do everything in his power for the good of the club he loves so dearly.