Man United renew old acquaintance in Europa League


LONDON — Manchester United’s rare foray into European football’s second tier gives them a chance to renew another old acquaintance today when they host Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

Having reached the round of 16 by winning their first encounter with Ajax since 1976, United are now up against a Spanish side they have not played since 1957.

Back then, Bilbao beat United 5-3 in the quarter-finals of the old European Cup before the so-called “Busby Babes” advanced to a semi-final against defending champions — and eventual winners — Real Madrid with a 3-0 second-leg win.

With a record of one win from four matches contributing to their demotion from the Champions League to the Europa League, United’s home form in Europe is less impressive this season, but Bilbao’s players are still excited.

“It’s a dream for us to play at Manchester just like it’s a dream for our fans to see us play at Old Trafford,” defender Jon Aurtenetxe said. “The best result would be a victory. But we’re aware of how difficult that will be, so we’ll try to produce the best possible result.

“We’ll give it our all. Let’s see if we can give them a scare.”

Bilbao centre-back Fernando Amorebieta is suspended, but Spain forwards Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain are available, as are dangerous midfielders Markel Susaeta and Ander Herrera.

Llorente has 12 goals in 18 appearances since returning from injury in January, helping the Basque club get this far and to reach the Copa del Rey final.
Bilbao have never won in seven trips to England — losing six times — but can take heart from the 2-1 win by Ajax last month that nearly took the Dutch club through against United. Ajax were eliminated 3-2 on aggregate, but came close to scoring the third goal that would have carried them through on away goals.

Defender Chris Smalling should return to United’s line-up after recovering from a head injury sustained playing for England, while Anderson could make his first appearance since January 8. Tom Cleverley and Antonio Valencia are unlikely to be fit but Valencia could make next week’s second-leg match in Spain.

Today’s fixtures:
Sporting v Man City (2000), Atletico Madrid v Besiktas (2000), FC Twente v Schalke 04 (2000), FC Metalist Kharkiv v Olympiacos (2000), Man Utd v Athletic Bilbao (2205), Standard Liege v Hannover 96 (2205), Valencia v PSV (2205)
— Reuters