It has been 55 years since Manchester United and Athletic Bilbao have dueled -- when United overcame a 3-5 deficit after the first leg prior to prevailing by a 6-5 aggregate scoreline in an epic European Cup quarter-final.
I was cynical when Manchester United were reduced to the Europa League from Champions League but I've grown to enjoy this ride so far. Quite honestly, I wouldn't have been gutted had we conceded another goal in the return leg at Old Trafford versus Ajax and thus been eliminated. However, it was a two-legged tie that allowed many of our important squad players valuable minutes after returning from injury. Despite their rust, we ultimately earned passage to this Round of 16 tie. Now, we face an interesting foe in Basque side Athletic Bilbao. The La Liga members have an eccentric and brilliant tactician in Marcelo Bielsa and they also have numerous young players that are destined to make their mark on the footballing world in the next decade. Four of those youngsters were recently called into the Spain squad -- the current World Cup and European champions -- and perhaps one of those players will make their mark at United one day (*).
(*) Javi Martinez please.
There is a historical link between these two clubs. The last time they met was in the quarter-final of the 1956-57 European Cup. Athletic earned a 5-3 advantage in Bilbao during the first-leg but United valiantly fought for a 3-0 advantage in the return leg at Maine Road (*) and as a result, then manager Sir Matt Busby and his babes won the tie with a 6-5 advantage. 55 years later, we duel again.
(*) The match was at Maine Road due to a lack of flood lights at the time at Old Trafford.
Form Guide: And then there were two. United's 1-3 away defeat of Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend essentially made the title-race in England a two-club affair. The Red Devils currently sit second in the Premier League table with 66 points through 27 league matches -- two points shy of leaders Manchester City. Since suffering from successive defeats near the new year, United have gone unbeaten in their last seven league matches -- with the only points dropped being a 3-3 draw versus Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge. United won the previously mentioned Ajax tie by a 3-2 aggregate scoreline.
Team News: Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher remain out for the remainder of the season but beyond that, United are nearing a return to full health in their squad. Antonio Valencia and Anders Lindegaard are out for this match but both are close to recovery from their injuries. Tom Cleverley began training again with the first-team this week and he may be available for selection. Anderson was in the 18 last weekend versus Spurs and he certainly appears available for selection. (Full Team News Report)
Form Guide: Athletic Club come into the tie sitting 5th in the La Liga table with 37 points from 25 matches -- only one point shy of a Champions League spot. They have gone four successive matches unbeaten in all competitions and their most recent contest was a 2-0 victory over rival Real Sociedad in the Basque derby. Athletic earned passage to this Europa League round by defeating Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow with a 2-2 scoreline -- they won the tiebreaker by having more away goals. Bielsa is also set to duel with protege Pep Guardiola when Athletic clash with FC Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final in May.
Team News: Captain Carlos Gurpegui is unavailable for this match.
United: This is difficult to predict. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson has publicly indicated that he made a mistake during their recent match versus Ajax by fielding such a young side in the 2nd leg -- specifically the back four. In addition, he has said that he would name a strong side. However, despite public declarations, almost everyone is aware that United's priority is conquering England again and that this European competition doesn't have the same priority as the Champions League when it comes to team selection.
The in-form David de Gea is the clear No.1 but perhaps Ben Amos is given a game. Fergie spoke of having so many young defenders as an issue versus Ajax but the only defenders he has available to him over the age of 24 are Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra. The former is likely to be rested while the latter should be rotated. Chris Smalling is expected to start and it could be alongside either Jonny Evans or Phil Jones at center-back -- a position that seems more likely than right-back. If Evra is rested, then Fabio will deputise at left-back while his twin brother Rafael is probable at right-back. Jones is in contention as well at right-back.
37 year-old Paul Scholes is likely to be rested -- at least from the start -- as could Michael Carrick. 38-year-old Ryan Giggs could be given a start after only coming on as a substitute last weekend and Anderson could be given a game in the center of the park. Cleverley and Park Ji-sung are possible as well although the latter -- who is more naturally a wide player -- ineffectively was deployed in a two-man central-midfield versus Ajax.
In attack, any two of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito), and Dimitar Berbatov could be chosen up front. The former two went the full 90 minutes at the weekend so the latter two could be rotated in. Any two of Giggs, Nani, Park, or Ashley Young is possible to flank them.
Athletic: Projecting selection choices for Bielsa is much simpler as only 12 players are realistically in contention to start -- possibly 13. Gorka Iraizoz will be the goalkeeper while Fernando Amorebieta, Jon Aurtenetxe, and Andoni Iraola are three of the expected back four. Either Javi Martinez or Mikel San Jose will line up alongside Amorebieta at center-back. In Bielsa's 4-2-3-1/4-3-3ish shape, either Martinez or Ander Iturraspe will shield the back four as a holding player while Oscar de Marcos will make driving runs from deep. Ander Herrera is typically their 'number ten' sort of playmaker but he often drops deep to give Athletic a midfield trio. In attack, Fernando Llorente is the fulcrum and he is usually flanked by Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta. Gaizka Toquero is possible as well at any position in the the attack line.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
* Athletic's Fab Four: The four Athletic players recently called into the Spain side were Llorente, Munian, Martinez, and Iraola. The former three are highly desired by Europe's biggest clubs. Llorente is a classical No. 9 with technical ability. He can act as a pivot in the attack line by holding the ball up and thus bringing others into attack or he can play a quick one-touch pass and peel off a marker. The 19-year-old Muniain is a versatile attacker that can play anywhere in the attacking line. He provides great technical ability, work-rate, and imagination. The 6'3" Martinez is a smooth deep-lying distributor that already has a World Cup winners medal as well as a U-21 European Championships medal -- in the latter competition, he was arguably Spain's standout player in a side that included Juan Mata. Iraola is a marauding right-back that is superb at sending in crosses (32.8% success rate in La Liga).
* Athletic's possession and pressing: Athletic treat the ball well as their 3rd best possession rate in Spain indicates (behind the two obvious giants). In the past, Bielsa's sides worked the ball directly at incredible speed from back to front. With Athletic however, the ball is calmly distributed by the deep-lying distributors -- often midfielders playing in the back four (e.g. Martinez) -- and ball is moved around until an overload can be created in attack. From here, the speed at which they attack can be impressive. When they lose the ball, they relentlessly press complimented by an incredible high line. The center-backs are often in the zone where midfielders roam -- which partially explains why players like Martinez are in the back line. United haven't seen a side do this with the combined relentlessness and effectiveness that Athletic do it since their recent battles in Barca in Champions League finals -- we all know how that went. Guardiola had this to say after their own clash with Athletic in November -- one of the best matches I've seen this season in any country:
"We’ve never played against a team who were so intense, so aggressive, and has denied us so much space."
How will United cope with this? Will they sit deep and look to counter by playing balls in behind Athletic's high-line? Or will they have a go themselves?
* Defending against Athletic's aerial threat: Although La Liga isn't nearly as physically as the Premier League -- particularly in the air -- it is still worth noting the aerial threat that Athletic presents. They have scored the most goals this season in Spain's top-flight from dead-ball situations. The clear threat is Llorente with his aerial prowess. This would be less of a worry if Vidic were able to mark him but the captain obviously isn't available. Thus -- whether it is Rio, Evans, Smalling, or Jones -- our center-backs must be prepared for a massive aerial challenge in this match. In addition to this, de Gea must command his box -- something he's shown improvement at in recent weeks but he certainly looks unconvincing at times still in this regard. Furthermore, United have been vulnerable against set-pieces as of late. All of this must be sorted out and perhaps the inclusion of Berba and Carrick into the side could offer up more height against set-pieces.
KO: 8:05pm GMT, 3:05pm GMT | Old Trafford
Live TV: Channel Five (U.K.), DIRECTV/GolTV (U.S.)
Referee: Florian Meyer
Athletic Bilbao Q&A: Arron Duckling (a must read)
Odds: Manchester United 8/15, Draw 14/5, Athletic Bilbao 11/2
TBB prediction: Manchester United 2-2 Athletic Club