Madrid: Athletic Bilbao claimed a spot in next season`s Champions League playoff round with a 3-0 win at Rayo Vallecano in La Liga on Friday which was sealed by a late Ander Herrera free-kick.
Athletic are fourth on 68 points, nine above Sevilla and with a superior head-to-head record against the Europa League finalists who have three games left, including Sunday`s home match with Villarreal, and cannot overhaul the Basque side.
Athletic`s Mikel San Jose flicked the ball into the net on the volley in the 20th minute after keeper Ruben Martinez failed to reach a corner and 10 minutes later Oscar De Marcos picked up a loose ball in the area from another corner and fired home.
Midway through the second half Herrera slotted home a free-kick from 25 metres for a resounding win.
“This is the result of a lot of hard work over the season but now we can enjoy this moment,” San Jose told reporters.
“I was lucky enough to score the first goal that helped us to achieve our aim.”
Athletic`s return to Europe after a year out is reward for their consistency under coach Ernesto Valverde, who has been linked to the Barcelona job currently held by Gerardo Martino.
Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid are top on 88 points with three games left before Sunday`s visit to Levante.
Barcelona trail the leaders by four points ahead of their home game with relegation-threatened Getafe on Saturday, while third-placed Real Madrid, six points off the pace but with a game in hand, entertain Valencia on Sunday.
On Friday, Athletic visited a Rayo team who had been in their best form of the season, with 23 points from the last 30 on offer to secure their top flight status.
Rayo had been widely praised for keeping faith with their passing game, even when they were encamped in the bottom three, and they went out against Athletic pushing high up the pitch.
However, they failed to cope with the visiting side`s threat from set plays and Mikel Rico and Aritz Aduriz went close from corners before San Jose gave the visitors the lead.
On the half-hour mark another corner was not cleared by the Rayo backline and De Marcos took advantage.
Athletic always seemed to be in control and once Herrera slotted in the third from a freekick Rayo had no response.