EUROPA LEAGUE

Lions let loose on United's turf

Athletic Bilbao to play for first time at Old Trafford in European clash

Hundreds of Athletic fans wait for their flight to Manchester at Bilbao airport this morning.
Hundreds of Athletic fans wait for their flight to Manchester at Bilbao airport this morning.MIGUEL TOÑA (EFE)

At least one in 10 of the soccer fans at Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium tonight (9.05pm, Cuatro) will be roaring for Athletic Bilbao, the Spanish club with traits taken from English soccer that go way beyond the name. Athletic has sold over 8,000 tickets for the first leg of the Europa League contest, which, Lions fans hope, will still be alive when the two teams play out the return game at Bilbao's San Mamés stadium next Thursday.

Though for both clubs the Europa League is to a differing degree a distraction from the main business of the season - for Bilbao qualifying for the Champions League by finishing in La Liga's top four and for United beating out an upstart cross-city rival to win yet another Premiership - the last-16 match in Europe's second-tier competition has an uncannily magical feel to it.

Bilbao has a peculiarly British heritage - it was British steel and shipyard workers plus coaches from the Sceptered Isle who helped to found what would become such a strong expression of Basque identity. But alongside that, much of the excitement surrounding the tie is that these two giants of European soccer have played each other so little, itself a reminder of simpler days when continental competition was but a fleeting interruption to domestic campaigns.

The last and only time the two sides met in Manchester (but at City's old Maine Road stadium because Old Trafford did not have floodlights), United won 3-0 to sneak through in the European Cup after losing 5-3 in Bilbao. That win for the English team was in 1957, exactly one year before the so-called Busby Babes were cut in half by the Munich air disaster, after which the club took a decade to climb to the pinnacle of European soccer, but did so with a huge army of fans worldwide. What Athletic may lack in numbers, both in terms of fans and on its balance sheet, it makes up for with passion, and a support that in many ways harks back to the oldest traditions of the British game: noise and a demand for physical commitment.

And the team coached by Argentinean Marcelo Bielsa undeniably has a chance to progress at United's expense, and not just because the three-time Champions League winner may suffer from a motivational problem at the Europa level. Athletic has lost only six of 25 matches in this season's Liga and lies in fifth position; has a King's Cup final against Barcelona to look forward to; and boasts a magnificent trio of young midfielders in Markel Susaeta, Ander Herrera and Iker Muniain to roll out attacks behind the king lion himself, Fernando Llorente.

"We are looking forward to the game with a lot of desire and ambition," Muniain, who made his debut for Spain last week at the age of 19, told the Fifa website. "People might give us up for dead because this is Manchester United we are talking about, a club that has been dominant in Europe for many years. But we will have our say."

For his part, United coach Sir Alex Ferguson is urging his players to "wake up" ahead of the clash with Athletic after a series of lackluster performances in Europe this season which saw the club crash out of the Champions League at the inititial group phase, and then almost let a first-leg lead over Ajax slip at Old Trafford in the previous round of the Europa League.

"It's a very difficult tie," the Scot said on Wednesday. "The work Bilbao have done has been very impressive. They're a very progressive team in Spain at the moment and it's going to be very difficult for us. We need to waken up."

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