Manchester United face the unenviable task of travelling to the San Mamés stadium to face Athletic Bilbao in the second leg of their Europa League tie tonight, needing to win by two clear goals in order to secure their progress into the quarter-finals.
Bilbao are unbeaten in their last 12 games at home and have won ten of them, scoring 30 goals in the process and conceding eight, while the last time an English side won at the stadium, Ian Rush bagged the winner.
So how do Sir Alex Ferguson’s side travel to Spain and pull of the impossible?
Live with Bilbao’s energy
The temptation for United would be to go on the attack from the off and start chasing the minimum two goals they require to qualify for the next round.
However in the first leg Bilbao demonstrated their ability to move the ball at pace on the break, through either Iker Muniain or Markel Susaseta out wide or Javi Martinez through the middle, who can then in turn feed Fernando Llorente to inflict damage on United.
It was Bilbao’s pressing that most impressed last week, with the United midfield in particular creaking under pressure while Llorente did an excellent job in leading from the front and hounding both Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling when either had possession.
Bilbao were electric from the start and their energy bettered any other team to have visited Old Trafford this season, and, having fielded a side with an average of less than 24 in the first leg, there is little chance of the visitors being able to match that energy in the second leg.
United regularly gave the ball away with men out of position at Old Trafford allowing Bilbao to do what they do best – plough forward with numbers – and while it isn’t in their make-up to soak up punishment, they don’t want the fact they need to chase the game play into the hands of their opponents.
Spurred on by the home crowd to play at their usual break-neck speed, United will be entering a dangerous slug-fest if they try to go toe to toe with Bilbao and go on the attack early on.
Instead, they would be better off by trying to see how their opponents fare making all the running, usually counter-attack teams work best when they are fed opportunities to do just that; counter.
Over the weekend, Osasuna were able to secure a 2-1 win over Bilbao, who looked decidedly under-par. Marcelo Bielsa’s side fell behind to an early goal (something United will be desperately seeking) and were then forced to make the running while defensive mistakes, including an own goal from Iturraspe, cost them dear.
Their defensive frailties were clear for all to see at Old Trafford where the movement of Rooney in particular meant the game finished much closer than it should have – United’s first goal saw the Bilbao back four stand still while Rooney pounced and their second was a silly penalty.
There will be goal-scoring opportunities for United, but they must retain their shape and frustrate Bilbao to stop them scoring, then do what they do best at the other end.
Wide men hold the key
Frequently last season, especially in the Champions League, Ferguson would prefer using Park Ji-Sung to Nani in midfield, in order to offer a degree of creativity going forward while also offering grater protection at the back.
The South Korean international played in the first leg last week and was largely ineffectual, however the impending return of Antonio Valencia means United may be able to pin Bilbao and their impressive full-back, Andoni Iraola, in his own half rather than letting him join in on the counter attack.
Both Iraola and his partner in crime on the other side of the pitch Jon Aurtenetxe, get forward regularly and occupy more of a wing-back position, meaning that while they pose a greater threat going forward, with the pace and directness of Valencia and Ashley Young on the other side their should be room for both to exploit.
With Bilbao fielding three men in midfield at Old Trafford, may have liked to match that, but with Nani, Anderson and Phil Jones out and Tom Cleverley on his way back from injury he will likely have to opt for a midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes.
Scholes is an obvious option in midfield, but against Tottenham a few weeks back he was harried out of the game by Harry Redknapp’s side pressing forward and shutting him down, and there is little doubt Bilbao will try and do that.
That means both Young and Valenica, should he get the nod ahead of Park, need to come in field to help out their team-mates and establish possession – with both Martinez and Oscar de Marcos more forward minded their should be space between them and the deep-lying Ander Iturraspe to exploit. It will be a difficult, exhausting night for however plays out wide.
Were it not for a horrendous defensive error, United would be going into this game all square. Rafael stood stationary as Muniain scored his side’s third goal of the game.
The boost for United is that Rio Ferdinand should feature having recored from injury - against a Spurs side that pressed equally as hard as Bilbao, Ferdinand excelled, and his experience should be valuable in front of a hostile crowd.
Such is the movement of the Bilbao side that they must be switched on the entire time, although interestingly there aren’t many long balls for Llorente, who has been passed fit to play, to feed off of which should make the centre-back pairings life easier.
In fact the striker admitted ahead of the first leg that he now plays in the ‘opposite’ way that he did when he first came into the side.
However there were plenty of balls over and behind the full-backs in the first leg so both full-backs and wingers need to be on the ball, while also avoiding a mix up similar to the one that led to Bilbao’s third goal at Old Trafford.
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