Athletic Bilbao looking to finish off Manchester United

Athletic Bilbao welcome Manchester United to San Mames tonight, knowing that a draw will be sufficient to secure a Europa League quarter-final place. Marcelo Bielsa’s men can even afford the luxury of losing 1-0 or 2-1 following their storming 3-2 win at Old Trafford last Thursday.

Thousands of travelling Athletic fans were treated to a memorable night in the first-leg encounter with a stylish and convincing win at the home of the Premier League leaders. Wayne Rooney gave United an early lead, but the Basques hit back with goals from Fernando Llorente, Oscar de Marcos and Iker Muniain. A Rooney penalty in stoppage time handed United a lifeline ahead of tonight’s second leg.

This is the first time Los Leones have reached the last 16 of the competition in its current format, and they have not reached the quarter-finals since the 1976-77 season, when they went on to lose to Juventus on away goals in the two-legged final. Athletic are currently unbeaten in six European home fixtures, with three wins and three draws since a 3-0 loss to Werder Bremen in the 2009/10 Europa League group stage.

Bielsa, Athletic’s enigmatic 56-year-old Coach, made an inauspicious start after taking over the San Mames hot seat from Joaquin Caparros last July. Los Leones won only one of their first seven Primera Liga games, but a 2-0 win over big-spending Paris Saint-Germain in the Europa League was a turning point. Athletic currently sit in seventh place in La Liga, well-placed for another European campaign next season.

Bielsa has transformed Athletic from one of the most direct sides in Spain into a predominantly youthful team, playing an appealing style of football that blends aggression and creativity. He drills an intensive, pressing game into his players during demanding training sessions, bringing out the best in them and delivering results. The Argentine, who has been linked with Barcelona and Chelsea in recent weeks, has a clear explanation for the success his methods have achieved.

“Our simple ethos is this: we try and win the ball back as quickly as possible from our opponents as far up the field as we can,” Bielsa told BBC Sport. “By that I mean everyone is involved in regaining the ball, from the forwards through to anyone else. Then once we have the ball, we try and find a way of getting forward as quickly as possible. We don’t get frustrated if we can’t get it forward immediately, we aim to be comfortable on the ball, and if it’s not a case of going forward straight away, we keep it.”

“They (Athletic) were the better team. It’s an uphill fight for us,” said Ferguson, who joined Bielsa’s growing band of admirers after last week’s encounter. “The work ethic of their team is fantastic. He (Bielsa) has built his side to work as hard as that and press the ball everywhere on the pitch. They never stopped running. His team probably mirrors himself.”

Athletic have been boosted by the news that Llorente will be fit to start against United tonight. Bielsa revealed that the Spanish international striker had recovered from a mild hip muscle strain that had prevented him from training yesterday afternoon with the rest of the squad. De Marcos and central defender Borja Ekiza have both recovered from bouts of flu and, with no other injury worries, Bielsa is likely to name the same eleven that started at Old Trafford.

United’s reverse at San Mames, following their 2-0 home loss against Ajax in the previous round, inflicted successive European home defeats on Sir Alex Ferguson’s side for the first time since 1996. Paul Scholes and Antonio Valencia were added to the United squad that arrived in Bilbao yesterday, with Anderson, Nani and Phil Jones all missing through injury.

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