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Athletic Club's scintillating run to the UEFA Europa League semi-finals may have made them many people's favourites to beat Sporting Clube de Portugal to the Bucharest decider, but Ricardo Sá Pinto is confident the Lisbon club can get a result in Thursday's home first leg.
"If I read the press I see Athletic are already in the final," the Sporting coach said. "Yet we are Sporting; we have 106 years behind us and we have history in Europe. We respect everybody, we are humble, don't fear anyone and we'll fight until the end. We are the only Portuguese team in Europe now, we're proud of that, and we'll give everything to keep on dreaming."
Sá Pinto has plenty of reason to do so, plus knowledge of Athletic from his time as a player with local rivals Real Sociedad de Fútbol. "I have fond memories of the Basque derbies," he said. "I was impressed by the atmosphere. There was a huge party around the matches; during the 90 minutes each team fought for the best result, but the rest was all fantastic. I have fond memories."
Someone else he respects is Athletic's coach. "Marcelo Bielsa has brought a special identity to the team and like the press say in Spain, they play similarly to Barcelona. They are comfortable with the ball, keen to have it and build from the back."
Bielsa says he is flattered by the compliment, and while he is keen to share the praise with his staff, he let slip what underpins his success: an insatiable appetite. "This is a big challenge but as glib as it sounds, all matches are important for us; equally important," he said. "All matches stir me, no matter who they are against. When the day comes that I am not enthused for a game it would concern me, but that is yet to happen."
Stunning high-scoring away wins against Manchester United FC, followed by FC Schalke 04 in the quarter-finals, certainly help keep the home fires burning, and Bielsa believes Sporting provide their own test. "It will be a different challenge but like United and Schalke, Sporting are an industrious side," he said. "There is a perception that they do not take the initiative quite so much, that we will have free rein to attack, but I am not so sure."
Athletic will give Iker Muniain a last-minute test on the inflamed left eye which prevented him from playing in Sunday's 1-0 victory against RCD Mallorca, while Borja Ekiza is likely to come in for the suspended Javi Martínez. Carlos Gurpegui, meanwhile, is back in the squad for the first time since tearing a cruciate knee ligament in October.
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