With a narrower gap between the two than many would have predicted, Manchester United just about managed to beat Ajax make it through to the Europa League Round of 16 and will host Athletic Bilbao as overwhelming odds on favourites with Paddy Power, as Alex Ferguson bids to progress further with the game at Old Trafford.
Ajax slumped to a 2-0 defeat in their first leg fixture against United but managed to beat the Red Devils in the reverse fixture, recording a rare away victory at Old Trafford.
Bilbao will undoubtedly prove a different challenge altogether and the Basque outfit – who find themselves pitted against Barcelona in this year’s Cop del Rey final – will undoubtedly attack from the off against the potentially vulnerable Red Devils.
Sir Alex Ferguson will surely look at the Europa League as an important matter of business despite some labelling the competition a ‘small tournament’, after tumbling out of this season’s Champions League.
Both sides can take pride in the youth amongst their respective ranks and Ferguson is actually known to be interested in signing several Bilbao starlets.
Ander Herrera, Javi Martinez and, most prominently Iker Muniain, have all been linked with a move to Old Trafford over the past two years and while scouting won’t be the priority this week, there’s no doubt that United will have their eyes on a few possible prospects this week.
The attention is earned too, with the youngsters playing a massive role in Athletic Bilbao’s steady rise up the La Liga table.
Los Leones currently sit in fifth place just a point outside the Champions League spots and Marco Bielsa is slowly but assuredly whipping his squad into a formidable force.
Fernando Llorente will play his usual role of hitman this week and with twenty goals already to his name this campaign, the Spaniard will look to add to his pedigree in England when his team take on the Red Devils.
United are admittedly the more in form side going into the encounter, after recording a 3-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur last weekend but won’t want to stop the good form there as they hope to go all the way in the Europa League.
Despite all the bright youth on the pitch, it could be experienced heads such as Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs that decide this fixture, with both veterans in contention to start against Athletic Bilbao on Thursday.