Match Preview: Athletic Bilbao vs. Manchester United

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By Mark Young

Manchester United face the impossible as they travel to the Basque Country on Thursday evening to face an extremely talented Atheltic Bilbao team in the Europe League.

Bilbao came away from Old Trafford last week with a 3-2 victory and certainly hold the upper hand as Man United’s poor European home form continued last week.

It is widely expected that Sir Alex Ferguson will field a strong line up in Spain with Ferdinand and Evans confirmed to continue their impressive recent partnership in the middle of defence. Chris Smalling could be a doubt as he is still nursing the head injury he picked up on international duty two weeks ago. Rafael is another confirmed starter and Patrice Evra is likely to continue at left back. Phil Jones remained in England for this game after staring at right back against West Brom on Saturday.

It will be a big call for Ferguson to start Paul Scholes in the centre of midfield as he seems to be more favoured for league games but Scholes and the excellent Michael Carrick have been performing well in the middle of midfield. Nani will probably sit this one out but Antonio Valencia has travelled with the squad which will be a huge boost for Ferguson considering he lost Anderson for four to five weeks due to injury this week.

Ashley Young would want to continue his recent form on the left side of midfield and Ryan Giggs is expected to start in the middle. Park may get another go on one of the wings but it is anybody’s guess how United will line up across the middle. Paul Pogba and Tom Cleverley will probably be on the bench as it would be another huge call to start either of the youngsters.

Wayne Rooney will look to add a couple of vital goals to his target of 40, set by his manager by starting up front with Javier Hernandez or Danny Welbeck. Welbeck has been excellent in his breakthrough season, highlighted by his performance in an unaccustomed position against West Brom. The Englishman is my tip to start alongside Rooney, as the two look continue develop their ever growing partnership.

Sir Alex confirmed Dimitar Berbatov’s departure in the summer is a possibility,  as the Bulgarian understandably seeks first team as he enters the latter stages of his career. It is unlikely that he will start in the cauldron in Bilbao.

Athletic Bilbao lost to Osasuna at the weekend but Marcelo Bielsa did rest Ander Herrera, Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente from the start. Iturraspe is doubtful after being substituted at half time on Sunday.

Bilbao will be confident of defeating last season’s Champions League finalists because United have only won three European games this season. Two against Otelul Galati and one away at Ajax.

It has been a poor season in Europe but qualification to the Europa League quarter finals on Thursday night will be a brilliant achievement but although defeat may be disappointing, it may not be the worst thing in the world to concentrate on keeping that newly acquired top spot in the Premier League.

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