With Manchester City still two points ahead in the Premier League Manchester United have a welcome distraction in the Europa league and their first leg clash against Athletic de Bilbao to look forward to on Thursday night.
Alex Ferguson and Manchester United
are somewhat “through the looking glass” here as they are virtual strangers to
the Europa League. After being so rudely dumped out of the Champions League and
facing their most serious challenge to the Premier League yet, from their
cross-city noisy neighbours the Europa League trophy would sit very comfortably
in their cabinet this year.
Getting near the sharp end
We are now down to the last 16 of
Europe League which means only four teams stand between Manchester United and
the trophy. At present, soccer odds list the Manchester side at 11/4 lift the Europa Cup, 4/11
to qualify for the next round, and even better than that they are 4/9 to win
Bilbao currently sit fifth in the La
Liga on 37 points, an insurmountable 30 points behind league leaders Real
Madrid and still 20 points behind second placed Barcelona. What's more
interesting for Bilbao is that only five points separates fourth-place Levante
UD and 11th place Espanyol. Which means, I'm tempted to say, the Europa League
is less important to Bilbao (and its fans) with league position hanging so
What is perhaps even more telling is
that Bilbao has the main distraction of the Copa del Ray final against
Barcelona to look forward to on 25th May. That could even be
considered a better chance of silverware as Bilbao have manages to draw three
of their last four games against Barcelona and have only been beaten (and then
only be by single goal) once in that spell. Still, sportsbooks list Bilbao at 19/5 to lift that
trophy and 16/1 to lift the Europa cup.
Best begun is half done
The second leg of this last 16 tie
will be played at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao and I thoroughly expect
Manchester United take with them a decent first-leg score when they go there on
15th March. That match will be the first time the Red Devils have
visited Athletic de Bilbao since January 1957, back then they lost 5-3 in a
European Cup quarter-final (a score available with the soccer betting odds of 500/1
this time), but managed to turn the tie around in the second leg in Manchester.
How times have changed, as back then their second leg was played at Maine Road as
Old Trafford didn't have any floodlights.
A below par United is still an above
Despite their league position
Manchester United hardly look like them all conquering European force this
season, and in their last Europa League game they went down 2-1 to Ajax at Old
Trafford and only advanced thanks to their aggregate score of 3-2. An identical
defeat is offered up by the bookies at 20/1. Progression is still progression
but nobody will be feeling overly confident after Ajax had 58% of the
possession and outshot United 10 to 6 (7 to 5 on target) in that game.
Alex Ferguson stepped up to shoulder
the blame for the defeat, saying, "I've got to accept I'm responsible for
picking the team and I picked too many young players in the back four
positions, it was a big risk I took."
What's more, in United's last four
European games played at Old Trafford they've only managed one victory; when
they Beat Otelul Galati 2-0, the other two games were drawn; 2-2 with Benfica
and 3-3 with Basel, dating back to last September. Any draw, which would be a
huge result for Bilbao, is available at 16/5 with the bookies.
I doubt very much that will see a
risk of any size on Thursday night, I'm expecting a fine performance and a
typical scoreline at Old Trafford with a strong United
victory, the bookies agree and have United winning at any score at 1/2.
Prediction: United win comfortably
2-0 available at 6/1.