With a distinctive style and panache, Athletic Club have lit up the UEFA Europa League and find themselves two games away from reaching a first European final since 1977.
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Having already accounted for the likes of Manchester United FC and FC Schalke 04, Athletic Club will look to seal their passage to a first European final since the 1976/77 campaign when they lost out to Juventus for the UEFA Cup. The arrival of Marcelo Bielsa as coach meant a radical change to the Basque side's playing style but with a successful run in the UEFA Europa League and a Copa del Rey final coming up against FC Barcelona in May, the squad have shown their willingness to adapt to the Argentinian's methods. FIFA World Cup winner Javi Martínez has proved a calming presence, while Ander Herrera's class in midfield and Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente's attacking menace have combined to offer new hope to the fans at San Mamés.
Story of the season
Following the promotion of Trabzonspor AŞ – Athletic's rivals in the UEFA Europa League play-off – to the UEFA Champions League, Los Leones were afforded a passage through to the group stage where they were drawn against Paris Saint-Germain FC, FC Salzburg and ŠK Slovan Bratislava. Bielsa's charges finished top of their section with 13 points, losing just once at PSG. An away goals success against FC Lokomotiv Moskva followed in the round of 32 while in the last 16, Manchester United were defeated away and at home to set up a last-eight meeting with Schalke. The Bundesliga side were stunned by a 4-2 defeat in Germany before the teams drew 2-2 on a rainy night in Bilbao to send Athletic into the semi-finals.
Semi-final pedigree (UEFA Europa League / UEFA Cup)
P1 W1 L0
Last: 1976/77 v RWD Molenbeek (1-1 away, 0-0 home, won on away goals)
Record against semi-final opponents
Athletic have met Sporting Clube de Portugal just once in UEFA competition, during the 1985/86 UEFA Cup. Both teams won their home leg, but it was the Portuguese side that came through after a 3-0 second-leg win in Lisbon.
1985/86 UEFA Cup third round
Athletic Club 2-1 Sporting Clube de Portugal
Sporting Clube de Portugal 3-0 Athletic Club (agg 4-2)
Facing a Manchester United team who had entered the tournament following elimination from the UEFA Champions League, Athletic put on an exhibition of attacking football in front of almost 8,000 travelling fans at Old Trafford and earned a 3-2 triumph that – combined with a 2-1 win in the return leg – helped the Lions seal their place in the quarter-finals.
Andoni Iraola, Athletic Club captain"It's taken a lot of effort to get here. At the start of the season we knew it would be very tricky to get this far, especially when you consider who we've come up against along the way. We are now faced with Sporting who have had a great tournament and who have players that played against us in our own league like Diego Capel, Matías Fernández and Jeffrén. We have enough time to study them."
It is not a great surprise that Athletic's top scorer in the tournament is Llorente. The imposing forward has scored six goals in 11 UEFA Europa League appearances to date and despite struggling with hip and knee injuries, he has remained his team's focal point up front. A tremendous volley past United goalkeeper David de Gea in the 2-1, round of 16 second-leg win at San Mamés is the 27-year-old's standout strike in Europe this season.
Midfielder Óscar de Marcos's versatility and tireless work rate have sometimes gone amiss among headline makers such as Llorente, Muniain, Herrera or Markel Susaeta but the 22-year-old's efforts this term have been no less important. The former Deportivo Alavés player has been used on both wings, and in central midfield, while he has also registered four goals in the UEFA Europa League.