Athletic Bilbao declines ahead of Schalke match

Athletic Bilbao declines ahead of Schalke match

LONDON - The Associated Press
Athletic Bilbao declines ahead of Schalke match

Bilbao forward Iker Muniain reacts during a La Liga game against Valencia. REUTERS photo

The hangover from its surprise elimination of Manchester United is threatening to jeopardize Athletic Bilbao’s hopes of winning the Europa League ahead of the Spanish club’s visit to Schalke in the first leg of the quarterfinals tonight.

Athletic attracted comparisons with the mighty Barcelona by producing two legs of mesmerizing football to oust the favorites in the last 16, but hasn’t won in four La Liga games since.

Schalke, the competition winner in 1996 and in fine form in the Bundesliga, will look to take full advantage in one of two quarterfinals between Spanish and German teams.

“They are a very good unit and when their attack starts rolling, it’s difficult for any team to stop Bilbao,” said Sergio Escudero, one of three Spaniards in Schalke’s squad.

“But I think we have a good chance of reaching the semifinals.” With United and Premier League title rival Manchester City surprisingly knocked out in the last round, Europe’s second-tier club competition looks wide open this year.

Spanish domination

Atletico Madrid, the 2010 winner, hosts Hannover in the first leg of their quarterfinal while Valencia - the third Spanish team through to the last eight - travels to AZ Alkmaar of the Netherlands.

Sporting Lisbon’s reward for ousting City is a two-legged match against Metalist Kharkiv, arguably the underdog among the remaining teams.

Fatigue seems to have caught up with Bilbao, one of the hardest-working teams in Europe, and its thin bench has also finally been revealed, just when qualification for the Champions League through a top-four finish in La Liga seemed possible. Striker Fernando Llorente doesn’t look fully fit from the left leg injury he sustained in the second leg match against United, while midfielder David Lopez is a doubt after injuring his right ankle in training.

Atletico has come back to earth after a long honeymoon under coach Diego Simeone, losing two of three domestically after just one loss in the former Argentina international’s first 10 games in charge.

Still, the 2010 champions have won all four European games under Simeone and midfielder Thiago has recovered from a leg muscle injury, with Brazilian playmaker Diego also likely to be available against Hannover after recovering from a right thigh injury.