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Manchester United v Athletic Bilbao Preview: Bielsa’s Stars Could Spring A Suprise

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After scrapping past Ajax in the Europa League round of 32, Manchester United now face highly-rated Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford in the first leg of what is likely to be a very difficult tie to say the least.

Bilbao managed by former Argentina and Chile boss Marcelo Bielsa sit 5th in La Liga and iwere probably the last side (aside from Athletico Madrid) who United would have wanted at this stage of the competition.

With a constellation of stars in their team, it’s easy to see why Bilbao are doing well and why despite Barcelona’s amazing form, some Spanish fans are tipping Bielsa’s outfit to pull of a surprise victory against Messi and co in the Copa Del Rey final.

After four poor performances at home in Europe this season, there’s no doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson will be demanding a major improvement in United this evening, who will need to take a lead going into next week’s return-leg back in Spain.

So what can we expect from tomorrow’s game. What will be the key battles on the pitch?

Jonny Evans v Fernando Llorente

Bilbao’s main weapon again will undoubtedly be their star striker Llorente who will no doubt trouble Evans and the rest of United’s back-four tonight. He is strong in the air, powerful on the ball and at times can be unplayable.

Evans has flourished recently, but tonight will be another sign of whether he really has enough about him to shut out one of Europe’s top strikers, and that he can indeed become a first-choice once Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic move on.

Michael Carrick v Iker Munain

To be dubbed Spain’s answer to Leo Messi, you have to be a special-kind-of player and the signs are that Munain has a great future ahead of him. He’s already a European Under-21 Champion and has just earned his first senior cap with Spain.

Playing at Old Trafford though will be a test of the youngster’s character and it’s important that Carrick (or whoever plays for United in central-midfield) doesn’t allow to him settle into the game or he will only grow in confidence.

Wayne Rooney v Javi Martinez

Since captaining Spain’s Under-21 side to European Championship victory, all of Europe’s biggest clubs have been linked with Martinez, who will seemingly leave Bilbao in the future to go onto bigger and better things.

The fact Martinez is comfortable in the centre of midfield as well as defence makes him a hot commodity and Rooney despite coming of a goal at the weekend, might be in for a long and frustrating night if he is unable to break free of the World Cup winner.

In terms of a prediction for the game, as stated earlier on in a on in a predictions article, I can see United grabbing a 2-1 draw in the Dutch capital, which in all honesty will be a result that Bilbao wouldn’t be annoyed to go back to Spain with.

United ideally need to win by two goals to go to San Mames on the front-foot and it’s vital that Bilbao’s star-trio of Llorente, Martinez and Munain are kept quiet early on and that they see as little of the ball as possible, as together they have the ability to win the game.

By Adam Dennehey @ADennehey87