Did talk of a move to Athletic Bilbao unsettle Newcastle's Mikel Merino?
Mikel Merino is coveted by Athletic Bilbao '“ but he's happy at Newcastle United.
The midfielder was strongly linked with a move to the La Liga club last month.
Bilbao leaked their interest in Merino, signed from Borussia Dortmund on a permanent deal early this season.
However, Newcastle didn’t receive a firm bid for the 21-year-old, who is slowly recovering from the back injury which sidelined him late last year.
And Magpie manager Rafa Benitez – who fielded calls from Spanish journalists asking about Merino’s future – dismissed talk of a move ahead of transfer deadline day.
Bilbao only sign players from the Basque Country, and Pamplona-born Merino is eligible to play for United’s one-time UEFA Cup opponents.
Benitez does not believe the reports of a move to the San Mames Stadium unsettled Merino, who impressed in the early part of the season before suffering a back problem in October.
Asked if Merino was happy at St James’s Park, Benitez said: “Yes, that was clear at the beginning.”
Merino – who only played a handful of games during his year at Dortmund – came off the bench in Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
The Spain Under-21 international has been in and out of the starting XI since returning from injury in November.
Asked about his form, Benitez said: “It’s just a case of getting back to his perfect match fitness. That’s it.
“It’s taken some time. Now he must recover the match fitness by training and playing games.”
For his part, Merino hopes to be fully fit soon.
Speaking last month, he said: “I had a lot of problems during the season with small injuries.
“The back injury, which I still have a little bit, is improving.
“I feel much better. I’m almost at 100% physically. I’m feeling good in training.
“I feel I’m at a good level. I’m happy to see myself play with my team-mates and my level in training.
“Yes, I hope in a few weeks I don’t have any problems and will be 100%.”
Merino says the back problem was the “worst” of his career.
“I’ve had a lot of injuries during my career,” said Merino.
“The back, I think, is the worst one, because it affects a lot.
“You cannot turn. You cannot sprint. You cannot jump. These are the things you cannot do.
“Sometimes it’s hard to play with these kind of injuries, because you feel like you can do 100%, but you’re doing 50%, and nobody knows it.
“It’s hard, but you have to carry on.
“A lot of players play with injuries and it’s part of the sport. I deal with it.”
Merino and his team-mates, given a couple of days off by Benitez after the Palace game, will now start preparations for Sunday’s home game against Manchester United.