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Athletic Bilbao set up Sporting showdown

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By Mike Barnes

Friday 06 April 2012

Athletic Bilbao hit back twice against a determined Schalke side last night to set up a Europa League semi-final with Sporting Lisbon.

A 2-2 draw at San Mames ensured a 6-4 aggregate victory for Athletic. Goals from Ibai Gomez and Markel Susaeta cancelled out strikes by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Raul Gonzalez as Marcelo Bielsa’s side held off a spirited challenge from the German outfit to maintain their two-goal cushion from the first leg.

Athletic started slowly as Schalke looked to take the game to their hosts and reduce the aggregate deficit early on. They did just that after half an hour as Huntelaar’s low drive from the edge of the area beat Gorka Iraizoz, despite the goalkeeper managing to get a touch.

The visitors continued to have the upper hand, but Athletic’s persistence paid off four minutes before the interval when Gomez – an early substitute for the injured Ander Herrera – unleashed a spectacular shot from distance on the left that flew past Lars Unnerstall for the 22-year-old’s first senior goal.

Former Real Madrid legend Raul commented before the game that this was the best Athletic Bilbao side he could recall in his long career, but the wily 34-year-old then put Schalke back in front seven minutes after half-time, firing in off the post after a neat move involving Huntelaar and Chinedu Obasi.

With their first European semi-final for 35 years in sight, Los Leones now began to dominate as the visitors tired. Schalke’s lead lasted barely three minutes as Susaeta fired a shot low at the near post to set up a last-four showdown against Sporting Lisbon.

After a sluggish start, this was in the end another high-octane performance from Bielsa’s men, whose four high-tempo Europa League encounters against Manchester United and Schalke have won them a wider following across Europe and produced a combined total of 18 goals, 11 of them for the Basques.

In contrast, Athletic’s domestic form has fallen away badly, with just a single point from their last five games leaving them in mid-table. Speaking after the game, Susaeta admitted that his side were not at their best against Schalke, but was delighted to have reached the last four of the competition.

“Tonight's game was a bit of an uphill struggle for us from the beginning but we drew courage from somewhere and we are all thrilled to be in the semis,” said the striker. “Marcelo Bielsa wants us to go out and try to win every game this season – that is our mentality.”

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