Sir Alex Ferguson has called on his troops to “waken up” if Manchester United is to progress to the Europa League quarter-final. Beaten at home by Ajax in the previous round, Untied has now clocked up eight sub-par performances in succession in European competition this season – a trend varyingly blamed on poor form, injury, complacency and the manager’s propensity to tinker.
No more, says the United manager, with the Scot promising to field a full strength side against Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford on Thursday night. The United manager may need to, with the Basque side lying fifth in La Liga and deploying a committed attacking style. Led by in-demand 13-goal leading scorer Ferdnando Llorente, Bilbao is just a single point off Champions League qualification.
It is no mean feat for a supporter-owned club that still largely employs the candera system of recruiting only players of Basque origin. One of Spain’s oldest club’s Athletic – note the English demarcation, initiated by the club’s Southampton-based founders – operates on a fraction of United’s budget, from its atmospheric San Mamés base.
But the self-imposed restrictions are unlikely to fool Ferguson, even if complacency in European competition has been a genuine problem for United’s players this season. The Basque side is likely to offer every bit as stiff a test as FC Basel, Benfica and Ajax have in the campaign.
With United facing successive home ties against Ahtletic and then West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford on Sunday, Ferguson is set to select a strong side against the Basque visitors.
“It’s a very difficult tie,” said Ferguson on Wednesday.
“From what we’ve seen, Bilbao are a very progressive team in Spain at the moment and it’s going to be a difficult game for us. It’s a game in which we need to waken up, there’s no question about that. Some of our European form this season has been disappointing but it’s an opportunity to progress and we have to take that opportunity. But it will need a very good performance.
“I don’t know if we’re making too many changes in these games. Certainly in the second leg against Ajax we did that, and in the Champions League group stage we made some changes. But we made mistakes in the group stage too, so it’s our own fault. But we’ll play a strong side against Bilbao and hopefully that makes a difference.”
It is just United’s second fixture with the Basque side, after Sir Matt Busby’s ‘Babes’ played, and beat, Bilbao in the European Cup quarter-final in early 1957. Losing the away fixture 5-3, Busby’s young side turned the tie around with a 3-0 at Maine Road to qualify for the semi-final. It provides an excersice in nostalgia, with United’s 11 a who’s who of the Babes: Wood, Foulkes, Byrne, Colman, Jones, Edwards, Berry, Whelan, Taylor, Viollet, Pegg.
Bilbao is no longer at the top table of European football, having won the last of the club’s eight La Liga titles in the mid-1980s. But under Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa, Bilbao has successfully married the traditional attacking Basque approach, to the one and two-touch close passing game the former national team manager prefers.
“They’ve got different qualities from a lot of Spanish teams,” Ferguson added.
“They press the ball very well and they’re not afraid to flood players forward in attack. They’re very positive and have no hesitation in committing themselves to attack at any point, with a number of players. It’s the best Athletic Bilbao team I’ve seen for some years.
“I’ve not met Marcelo Bielsa but I admire his work. He’s overseen the emergence of a very good, determined, organised Bilbao side with great belief. He’s instilled those qualities in his team. We’ll have to be strong at the back; if you offered me a 1-0 tomorrow I’d take it, as it’s much better than a 2-1 or 3-2.”
Ferguson will counter the threat by deploying a strong starting side, although there are bound to be changes to the team that beat Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane last weekend. Indeed, Ferguson has largely used European competition to offer minutes to second-string players this term, and the strategy may not change at Old Trafford on Thursday.
Brazilian midfielder Anderson, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernández, Park Ji-Sung and Ryan Giggs are all in line to play some part in the fixture. However, having deployed a callow back-four and goalkeeper – to disastrous effect – against Ajax at Old Trafford last month, the Scot is likely to field the same rearguard that saw off Spurs on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Bilbao arrive with one of Europe’s most sought after strikers in Llorente, who has scored 13 goals in 22 La Liga appearances this season. The 6’5″ striker provides an obvious aerial threat, but has proven a consistent goalscorer at both domestic and international level.
“Manchester are obviously the favourites. They always play Champions League and compete with teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid,” Llorente told the Europa Press Association.
“They are one of the big teams in Europe and we’re novices. Rooney is a real killer. He has a great mentality and is a great inspiration for his team-mates. I expect a very exciting game. We are really looking forward to the game, and will do our utmost to get a good result. We have been doing quite well and might cause an upset.
“This round against Manchester United will be a key moment in my sporting career so far. After the World Cup in 2010 and the Copa del Rey final coming up, this is the most important match ever for me. To play at Old Trafford is a dream challenge for any footballer and now I am dreaming of success on that pitch. Matches like this are a special test of my ability.”
Bielsa has more than a single weapon in his locker though, with Markel Susaeta and outstanding youngster Iker Muniain offering Llorente support from the flanks. Pamplona-born Muniain, who has forced his way into the full Spain squad this season, is likely to attract big-money summer offers, with the 19-year-old being compared in style to Lionel Messi. Certainly Munaian’s diminutive build and pacey dribbling style could offer United’s right-back a genuine challenge.
The outstanding Javi Martinez, a defensive midfielder whom many home supporters would like to see in United red, will anchor Athletic’s engine room.
“We’re very proud and full of hope and excitement,” said Argentinian Bielsa, who managed the national team from 1998 to 2004.
“Taking on this Manchester United side, with what they’ve achieved, the great players they have, and the man responsible for getting them where they are, represents the highest level of competition for us.”
Should Bilbao pull off a result at Old Trafford, which is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility given the hosts’ European form this season, Bielsa may readjust his ambition. History does not bode well for the visitors, with Athletic having lost half of the club’s 14 games against English sides. But make no mistake, Bilbao is close to the best sides United has faced in any European competition this season, even if the Basque side has lost its past two European away fixtures.
Manchester United versus Atletic Bilbao, Old Trafford, Europa League, Thursday 8 March 2012, 8.05pm
United (4-4-2): de Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Smalling, Fabio; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Young; Berbatov, Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Rafael, Evra, Evans, Fryers, Scholes, Park, Nani, Welbeck, Rooney, Owen.
Bilbao (4-3-3): Iraizoz; Iraola, Amorebieta, San Jose, Aurtenetxe; , Martínez, Herrera, Oscar; Susaeta, Llorente, Muniaín. Subs from: López, Del Campo, Raúl, Toquero, Pérez, Gomez, Ekiza
Referee: Florian Meyer (GER)
Assistant referees: Holger Henschel, Jan-Hendrik Salver
Additional assistant referees: Deniz Aytekin, Markus Wingenbach
Fourth official: Michael Weiner