Spanish trio eyeing Europa League advantage


Three clubs from La Liga have reached the last 16 of the Europa League and all face experienced European opponents in tonight’s first-leg matches. Atletico Madrid and Valencia host Besiktas and PSV Eindhoven respectively, while Athletic Bilbao travel to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United for a place in the quarter-finals.

Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic have the most difficult challenge of the three Spanish sides, and the Argentine Coach will field his strongest possible eleven at Old Trafford. Ander Iturraspe, who missed the Basque derby win over Real Sociedad at the weekend though suspension, will replace Fernando Amorebieta, who is himself suspended following a red card against Lokomotiv Moscow. Iturraspe’s return to the midfield will see Javi Martinez move back into central defence.

The Bilbao side are having a great season under Bielsa, who has steered them to fifth in La Liga and the final of the Copa del Rey. Los Leones edged past Lokomotiv in the previous round of the Europa League, thanks to Iker Muniain’s vital away goal in Moscow and the same player’s second half strike at San Mames, following Amorebieta’s dismissal. Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente said he expected an exciting game against Sir Alex Ferguson’s United, but appealed for ‘maximum concentration’ from his teammates.

“We need not fear our opponents, but we must play our game and concentrate, because they have high quality players and they will punish any mistakes,” said the Spanish international. “In every game we have been doing well, we are looking forward to another good game and, who knows, we might win. It’s wonderful to play at Old Trafford. I don’t think any of our squad have been there before. We want to enjoy this experience and we want to do well.”

“Wayne Rooney is the killer, and that spreads to his teammates, he is a player of great fight,” added Llorente, when asked who Athletic feared most in the United line-up. “Obviously they are the favourites. They are always playing in the Champions League and competing with Barcelona and Real Madrid. They are one of the big teams in Europe and we are novices, but we go there with all our hopes and our ability to play football.”

PSV are third in the Dutch Eredivisie after crashing 6-2 at home to title rivals Twente. Valencia, who occupy the same position in La Liga despite some shaky recent performances, reached the last 16 with two patient 1-0 wins over Stoke City. Turkish midfielder Mehmet Topal’s 30-metre strike was enough to secure the win for Unai Emery’s team at the Britannia Stadium and Brazilian striker Jonas Oliveira’s classy effort clinched the tie at the Mestalla.

Valencia are unbeaten in eight games against Dutch opponents, while PSV have failed to win in 22 attempts against Spanish sides. The two clubs’ only previous meeting was in the 1999-2000 Champions League group stage, when Los Che won 2-1 on aggregate. Current Valencia captain David Albelda made his European debut in that encounter and has been looking forward to tonight’s match.

“We consider ourselves one of the contenders to win the Europa League, although the favourites are Manchester United and Manchester City,” said the veteran midfielder. “PSV have always been a great team in Europe and it would be wrong to consider ourselves superior to them. We would all be really excited to go far in this competition, but if we eliminate PSV it will be very important to avoid the two Manchester teams in the quarter-final draw.”

Atletico Madrid endured a disastrous first half of the domestic season under Gregorio Manzano, but have been transformed since Diego Simeone took over in December and won impressively in the last round, seeing off Lazio. Two goals from the prolific Radamel Falcao and one from Adrian Lopez gave Atleti a convincing 3-1 win in Rome, with a Diego Godin header at the Vicente Calderon sealing a 4-1 aggregate victory. Besiktas midfielder Simao Sabrosa knows Atletico well, having scored 20 goals in 113 Primera Liga games for them between 2007 and 2010.

“I will always have Atletico at heart,” the Portuguese told Marca, “although of course I am a professional and I want to win for Besiktas. It’s clear that Atletico are a very difficult team to play against, which reflects the image of their Coach. From what I have seen on TV, they seem very committed. It will be difficult for Besiktas, we have some injury problems, but we start on equal terms.”

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