Athletic Bilbao v Manchester United
6pm, Tonight, ITV1
Man City v Sporting Lisbon
8.05pm Setanta & ESPN
‘Welcome to the Lion’s Den, Mr Ferguson,’ some pithy Athletic Bilbao fan is sure to scrawl on a banner and hang off the terraces of the San Mamés stadium tonight. After beating Manchester United 3-2 at Old Trafford last week, Los Leones (The Lions) will be looking forward to getting their claws in to Alex Ferguson’s side in tonight’s Europa League round-of-16 second leg.
After outplaying the Premier League leaders away from home, Bilbao need only a draw on a ground where they are unbeaten in their last 12 games, 10 of which they’ve won. Barcelona needed an injury-time Messi goal to snatch a draw there back in November. The Catalan side have, of course, been United’s European nemesis of late, beating them in two of the last three Champions League finals. Bilbao play a similarly high-tempo, pressure game. This is a tactic with which Ferguson’s current team can really struggle.
Ryan Giggs (38) and Phil Jones (20) were over-run in the first leg until Michael Carrick (30) was introduced to add another body to the midfield. That is something which Ferguson is likely to do from the start. He needs to plug the gaps which the talented quartet of Iker Munain (19), Markel Susaeta (24), Oscar de Marcos (22) and Fernando Llorente (27) will be working hard to expose.
Bilbao had 58% of the possession at Old Trafford and if they are afforded that amount of time on the ball this evening United will struggle again. Having seen what they are capable of in the first game, the Spanish side are great value to win in 90 minutes at 17/10.
Wayne Rooney’s late penalty has kept this tie closer than it should be but the three away goals Bilbao scored puts them in a very strong position. Rooney has been in cracking goal-scoring form with five goals in three games and he needs to be at the top of his game. He’s more than worth a bet to score any time at 13/10 but the question is: will his efforts be enough? A one-man Rooney show isn’t going to cut it.
If Ferguson has serious ambitions in the Europa League then he needs to get his motivational speech and his tactics spot on. Even then does he have the tools at his disposal for European football? We’ll find out tonight when he enters the Lions’ den.
Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City side didn’t play very well in the first leg of this Europa League tie against Sporting Lisbon. The phrases ‘frustrating’ and ‘out of sorts’ were used in the post-match reports. More than one hack trotted out the ridiculous ‘lack of experience’ line to explain why moneybags City didn’t go to Portugal and thrash the comparatively impoverished Sporting to within an inch of the exit door.
First of all, it has to be pointed out that European football isn’t all that easy and a lack of knowledge about a team doesn’t necessarily equate to them being rubbish. Then there’s the fact that the Manchester City team, despite having World Cup, European Cup and Champions League winners in their midst, is mostly made up of human beings. Human beings who are liable not to be perfect at all times. They’re going to have the odd off game or two. It wasn’t a great result but it certainly wasn’t a disaster.
City boss Roberto Mancini should be rightly confident that his side can win this game and this tie comfortably at the Etihad Stadium to reverse the 1-0. Of the 21 games they’ve played there this season The Citizens have won 18, drawn one and lost just two, scoring 55 goals and conceding just 12.
Sporting Lisbon started well on the road this season, winning five and drawing two of their first seven away games. Since beating Feirense back in October, Sporting have played nine away games, drawing two and losing the other seven. The Etihad Stadium isn’t the place you want to visit if you suffer from travel sickness, or travel rubbishness as has become the case.
Manchester City are 4/9 favourites to progress through to the quarter-finals of the Europa League and despite their performance in Lisbon it’s hard to see them being beaten tonight. Barring a complete failure to show up, City -2 goals at 9/4 should be covered comfortably.