Sir Alex Ferguson certainly talks a good game, praising his side’s durability ahead of Manchester United’s crucial Europa League second leg clash with Athletic Bilbao on Thursday night. United will need resilience and more, with Ferguson’s side, 3-2 down from the first leg at Old Trafford, needing to win by two clear goals – or score four – at San Mames. Given the vibrancy with Athletic attacked last week, United will need to pull off one of the side’s finest European away performances of recent years to progress.
The Reds’ home defeat to the Basque outfit was the second successive turnover at Old Trafford in the competition, and comes after a European season in which the Reds have conspicuously failed, after reaching three Champions League finals in the past four years.
Despite the campaign’s comparative failures, and the size of the task ahead, Ferguson believes United’s durability will take the club through to a quarter-final spot. However, the Scot’s side will have to do so without several players, including Anderson, Phil Jones and Nani, who were left in Manchester. Chris Smalling is unlikely to be risked from the start after a head wound opened up in spectacular style in last week’s encounter.
Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia and French teenager Paul Pogba travelled with the squad Spain and could play some part. Tom Cleverley is again likely to be left on the bench, as was the 22-year-old midfielder for United’s weekend victory over West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford.
“We keep carrying on and it points to a resilience in the team that is really admirable,” Ferguson said on Wednesday.
“They have done exceptionally well. It is an achievement in the sense of they’re still hanging in there. We still can win this game tomorrow and I think the players believe that. It’s a difficult tie for us. Bilbao have a tremendous advantage now, so it’s a challenge – but not one that is beyond us. Our record away from home in Europe helps us. We have done really well the last few years away from home but it’s going to need a good performance.”
Indeed, United hasn’t turned around a first leg defeat in European competition since 2007, beating Roma 7-1 at Old Trafford in the Champions League. But the Reds may have to change a defensive-minded philosophy away from Old Trafford that has brought success, but may simply invite Athletic to reprise the exciting possession-based attacking game of last week’s encounter.
Ferguson may gamble on his senior pros at San Mames, with Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick all likely to start at San Mames. United faces Wolverhampton Wanderers away at Molineux on Sunday, and Ferguson has a fine line to trend between progressing in the Europa League and gambling the Reds’ domestic ambitions. He has consistently rotated his resources in European competition this season.
Despite defeat to Bilbao, confidence is high in the camp after United reached the Premier League summit at the weekend. With City losing, United now controls the title race for the first time since the autumn.
And winger Ashley Young, who has recently returned to something approaching his late summer form, says that United’s team spirit could be the foundation for an unlikely result in Spain. Young scored twice in United’s recent victory over Tottenham Hotspur and again impressed in the weekend win against West Brom.
“It is unusual that we find ourselves in this position but there is a great team spirit here and everyone is full of confidence,” said the 26-year-old former Aston Villa star.
“Our form in general makes us believe we can score wherever we play. Our attacking play has been fantastic of late and we believe we can score the two goals we need. Our focus has not changed from the start of the season. We want to win every competition we enter and the Europa League is no different.
“Bilbao were an impressive team last week. They were a very attacking team, had a good team shape and at times we found them hard to break down. But I am sure if we are on our game 100% we can go there and get the win we need.”
Meanwhile, Athletic manager Marcelo Bielsa is again likely use the outstanding midfielder Javi Martínez in defence, albeit in a role that offers extensive license to roam. Martínez exemplified the committed attacking approach Bilbao offered at Old Trafford, frequently pushing into midfield as the visitors dominated possession and territory.
Attackers Iker Muniain, Markel Susaeta and Fernando Llorente will again look to trouble a United back-four that looked anything but assured at Old Trafford. Indeed, Ferguson’s side will need to adopt a new approach to countering Bilbao more successfully than last week.
Despite the outstanding performance at Old Trafford, Bilbao was beaten 2-1 by Ossasuna at the weekend; it is consistency that coach Bielsa says is most difficult for those clubs outside Spain’s duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Bielsa has led Bilbao to fifth in La Liga, despite a policy of recruiting only local players – or those players with a local connection – and a tiny budget by United’s standards. Modest to the last, the former Chile and Argentina coach refuses to take any personal credit for the club’s recent progress.
“The difference in points and finance is there for everyone to see,” said the Argentine.
“But I also believe that on one night or in one match a team like Athletic can get very close to the level of opponents such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United. However, to maintain that throughout an entire league season is extremely difficult.
“There is no prestige to coaching a national side or beating Manchester United. Personal things like that do not concern me. They do not last very long. The evaluation of anything has to be done over the long-term, not the short. And we still have another very important 90 minutes ahead of us.”
Could there be an omen in history for United, even if the odds appear stacked against progression? The clubs’ only previous meetings came over 50 years ago in the quarter-finals of the European Cup – Bilbao beat Sir Matt Busby’s United 5-3 in Spain, only to lose the return fixture 3-0 at Maine Road.
To repeat that feat United will have to build on a poor record in Spain, with the Reds having won only twice in the club’s history against Spanish opposition, on Spanish soil. There’s no time like the present to buck that trend, although in one of the most atmospheric Spanish stadiums, nicknamed The Cathedral by locals, it may take a minor miracle from Ferguson’s men.
Athletic Club Bilbao versus Manchester United, Europa League, San Mames, 15 March 2012, 6pm
Bilbao: (4-1-4-1): Iraizoz; Iraola, Martínez, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe; Iturraspe, de Marcos, Herrera; Susaeta, Llorente, Muniain. Subs from: San Jose, Oscar; López, Del Campo, Raúl, Toquero, Pérez, Gomez, Ekiza.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Park; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Fabio, Smalling, Pogba, Cleverley, Young, Giggs, Berbatov, Owen, Hernandez
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (TUR)
Assistant referees: Tarik Ongun, Mustafa Eyisoy
Additional assistant referees: Hüseyin Göçek, Bülent Yıldırım