Manchester United FC manager Sir Alex Ferguson has warned his side they underestimate a young Athletic Club team at their peril as the sides vie for a place in the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals.
It is 55 years since Sir Matt Busby oversaw United's victory over Athletic Club in the sides' only previous competitive meeting. His side did it the hard way after a 5-3 loss in Bilbao, but a 3-0 win at Old Trafford sealed progress to the European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finals. Sir Alex, the only man to rival Sir Matt in the pantheon of United managers, is hoping lightning strikes twice over the next ten days but he is under no illusions about the task being any easier than it was in 1959.
"It'll be a very difficult tie," said the 70-year-old, whose side gave him a nervous evening last time out in this compeition as they edged past AFC Ajax. "Athletic look very impressive and they're a very progressive team at the moment in Spain. We'll need to be awake from the off as our European form been disappointing this season. We have the opportunity to progress in the competition but to do so we'll need to play very well.
"I've not met [Athletic coach] Marcelo Bielsa but I admire his work.
He's overseen the emergence of a very good, determined, organised Bilbao side with great belief. He's instilled those qualities in his team – we will be up against the best Bilbao side I've seen for many years. We'll have to be strong at the back; if you offered me a 1-0 [win] tomorrow I'd take it, as it's much better than a 2-1 or 3-2."
Much may depend on goalkeeper David de Gea, who has rewarded his manager's faith with a growing assurance in recent weeks after a shaky start to life in England following his summer move from Club Atlético de Madrid. "I was given another opportunity to prove myself and I've taken it," said the 21-year-old. "I've only good things to say about Athletic. They're fourth in the Liga so we know it won't be easy. They have very good attacking players."
Indeed, Bielsa is hoping the likes of Markel Susaeta, Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente rise to the challenge. "We're very proud and full of hope and excitement," said the Argentinian. "
Taking on this Manchester United side, with what they've achieved, the great players they have, and the man responsible for getting them where they are, represents the highest level of competition for us." Should Athletic win at Old Trafford, that statement may need adjusting.
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