But when you look at the best of the rest, Athletic Bilbao are solidly perched near the top of those ranks and head into the last few months of the season with a chance to lock up their first Champions League berth since 1998, and they’ll be a confident bunch as they pay a Europa League visit to Old Trafford tonight.
They opened the season with a five-match winless run, but they’ve put that poor start well behind them. Currently, they’re fifth in La Liga with 37 points from 25 matches, one point behind surprise package Levante and only six points behind Valencia. Athletic have been in solid form thus far in 2012, as they’re 10-3-2 in 15 matches in all competitions, and along with moving within reach of the Champions League places and advancing to the final 16 in the Europa League, they’ve also booked a Copa del Rey showdown against Barcelona.
Draws have been an issue for Athletic this season. To be more specific, draws from winning positions have been an issue. They have ten draws in the league, a total that’s bested by only Osasuna (11) and Racing Santander (12), and eight of those draws have come from winning positions. Overall, holding leads and surrendering late second-half goals seems to be an issue, really. They’ve scored a few key second-half goals themselves, but that’s overshadowed by how many they’ve surrendered. Of the 45 goals they’ve allowed in 42 competitive games this season, 24 have been allowed in the second half. That’s something that could be a tipping point in this tie, considering that more than half of United’s goals in all competitions this season have come in the second half, with Ashley Young‘s second-half double on Sunday at Spurs adding to that tally.
But this is a talented team led by a top, experienced manager in Marcelo Bielsa, and United can’t take it easy in either leg. Fernando Llorente has been one of La Liga’s top strikers for the last several seasons, and he’s in fine form this season, with 13 league goals in 22 appearances and 20 in all competitions. Llorente, at 27, is one of Atheltic’s older starters, as there are a number of younger players already in key roles. A couple of them have attracted the interest of United, in 23-year-old midfielder Javi Martinez and 19-year-old attacker Iker Muniain, both of whom will have a chance to showcase their vast ability and potential tonight.
So, United won’t have an easy task on their hands tonight or next Thursday, but they’re still solid favorites to progress. Back-to-back away wins over Norwich City and Tottenham have kept the deficit in the Premier League to only two points heading into a favorable stretch, and they’ve also erased some of the stink from United’s last home appearance, a 2-1 defeat to Ajax that saw United just scrape through to the round of 16 after having what appeared to be a commanding advantage.
Thanks to how things played out in that match after United had taken an early lead and how important it is to take a solid advantage to Bilbao, you can expect a positive approach and a strong starting XI tonight. It’s too early to have Tom Cleverley and Antonio Valencia back in the mix, but it looks likely that we’ll see Chris Smalling tonight, just eight days after a frightening (and painful) clash of heads with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in England’s friendly with the Netherlands.
It would be ideal to have the second leg at home, as it’s the most favorable scenario and it’s also what United are accustomed to, as this is the first time they’re playing the first leg of a European knockout round tie at home since the Champions League semis against Arsenal in 2009. But that worked out quite well, and with United rounding into winning form at the right time, this time should work well also. Besides, after multiple frustrations at home in Europe this season, United are due tonight, right?