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Sporting Clube de Portugal turned adversity into triumph in the space of four second-half minutes as Emiliano Insúa's header and a stunning Diego Capel effort earned a 2-1 first leg victory over Athletic Club.
The Portuguese will head to Bilbao's San Mamés fortress next week confident that they have a platform on which to build one last push towards the UEFA Europa League final in Bucharest. For a while their plans looked awry as a positive first-half performance was forgotten when Jon Aurtenetxe volleyed in nine minutes after the restart; Insúa and Capel changed all that.
They earned a victory that had looked likely in the opening stages, when Sporting seemed turbo charged. They won every race, every loose ball, and their neat combination play brought roars of approval from the José Alvalade crowd. Insúa soon cracked in the first of his multitude of efforts on goal and Ricky van Wolfswinkel's turn and volley wide were not fitting of a striker with five goals in the tournament to his name this term.
Athletic made it to the last four thanks to a thrilling campaign featuring 15 goals away from home and Fernando Llorente gave fair warning another was on the menu with a header narrowly over. But it was the pace of André Martins down the middle and Insúa's relentless galloping down the left which were impressing.
Athletic's struggles to contain the home side led to a booking for Óscar de Marcos which means he misses the second leg, though Sporting's Marat Izmailov would suffer the same fate. João Pereira cracked the outside of the post, Van Wolfswinkel edged a firm drive just wide and the stadium bounced until the opening goal made them turn to stone.
The perpetual premium for profligacy is shipping one in at the other end and so it proved as Markel Susaeta's free-kick skidded off Insúa's attempted clearance and landed perfectly for Aurtenetxe to volley in. Fernando Amorebieta then hit the post from point-blank range – Sporting's luck changed radically.
Justice for the tireless Insúa came in the shape of his instinctive header with 14 minutes left and from parity Sporting found confidence. Ironically it was a Spaniard, Capel, who put a final dampener on Athletic's promising evening when he thrashed a shot from outside the box past Gorka Iraizoz to delirious acclaim.
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