After seeing off Ajax Amsterdam over two legs in the last round, United entertain Athletic Bilbao in the last 16 of this seasons Europa League at OId Trafford on Thursday.
After coming away from the Amsterdam Arena as 2-0 victors last month, United made hard work of the return game, taking the lead through Javier Hernandez, but ending up losing 2-1. Scraping through with an aggregate score line was never the game plan, and neither was qualifying as the second best out of the two sides over the two legs.
However, qualification is all that matters, and the reds reward for that is a tie against a Spanish side who haven’t won a trophy for 28 years. Athletic Bilbao, lying in 5th place in La Liga arrive in Manchester to try and stop the reds completing the set of European trophies.
United go in to this one with a team that is as near to full fitness as we’ve seen in a while, with Chris Smalling available for selection after a head injury sustained on England duty last week.
David De Gea should keep his place in goal. The Spanish ‘keeper is in form at the moment, and has seemingly won the war with the media who’ve been trying to persecute him since his arrival. He knows Athletic well, keeping two clean sheets against them in the last few years, and conceding two in a defeat last season.
A defence of Rafael, Smalling, Jones and Fabio could start for United, given that Evans and Ferdinand are forming a strong partnership in the centre, and could be left on the bench in order to be fit for a tough game against West Bromwich Albion on Sunday.
Javier Hernandez scored in both games against Ajax, and is likely to start against Athletic – with Dimitar Berbatov a possible partner for him.
My prediction for the midfield births will be four from Young, Giggs, Park, Nani, Anderson, with Scholes and Carrick being rested.
Bilbao fly to Manchester after winning three of their last five games, and drawing 2-2 with Valencia. They’ve already made the final of the Copa Del Rey in Spain, where they will face Barcelona in the final on 25th May.
One of the men to watch for Athletic will be striker Fernando Llorente, who’s scored 13 goals in 22 league games this term, and Javi Martinez, the 23 year old midfield will also cause the reds problems.
Athletic Bilbao midfielder Ander Herrera, has insisted that his side will be going all out for the win on Thursday night. He said: R20;It’s a dream that we are going to live a unique situation that maybe throughout your career you only experience once but, clearly, we are going to win, not just turn up.”
The clubs’ only previous meeting came over 55 years ago, in what was both sides’ third competitive two-legged tie in UEFA competition. In the quarter-finals of the second European Champion Clubs’ Cup, Ferdinand Daučík’s Athletic beat Sir Matt Busby’s United 5-3 in Bilbao, but lost the return fixture 3-0 at Maine Road, usually the home of Manchester City FC, where United were playing due to Second World War bomb damage to Old Trafford.
The game was played exactly one year before the Munich air disaster happened, on 6th February 1957.
The teams that day were:
United: Wood, Foulkes, Byrne, Colman, Jones, Edwards, Berry, Whelan, Taylor, Viollet, Pegg. Athletic: Cedrun, Orue, Garay, Trapero, Ugartemendia, Maguregui, Arteche, Marcaida, Merodio, Uribe, Gainza.
Did you know…
- Should United win the UEFA Europa League they will be only the fourth club to win all three trophies, joining Juventus, AFC Ajax and FC Bayern Münich.
- The next goal Athletic concede in will be the 100th they have conceded in the UEFA Cup and UEFA Europa League; this will be their 80th game in the two competitions.
- Bilbao have won their domestic league title eight times, and the Copa Del Rey 23 times. The last time they won either of these competitions was in 1984, achieving a league and cup double.
So, Europa-ean nights are here again, and I’m not alone in hoping that United go on to win this trophy.
It’s growing on even the most sceptical of supporters who wanted us to discard this competition because we’re bigger and better than it.
Well, we’re in it for a reason, and the least we can do it give it a good shot and aim to complete the full set of European trophies.
Wherever you’re watching it, enjoy the game.
Follow me on Twitter: @stevecrab
Thanks to uefa.com for providing various stats for this preview.