There’s always intrigue when Portuguese and Spanish sides cross paths, so when Sporting CP and Athletic Bilbao were drawn together the prospect of an Iberian showdown certainly whetted the appetite. The coaches of both sides are at opposite ends of the spectrum too. Ricardo Sa Pinto, at 39, is still in the early stages of his managerial career after being promoted from a youth coach role at the club until the end of the season. Meanwhile, Athletic are led by Marcelo Bielsa, the fiery Argentinean coach with bags of experience at both club and International level.
Sa Pinto has overlooked things at Sporting since the knockout stage of the Europa League began, navigating past Legia Warszawa, Manchester City and Metalist Kharkiv as the club look to reach the final, just as they did 7 years ago when they eventually lost against CSKA Moscow. The victory over Manchester City is what managed to grab many people’s attention, and a repeat of that 1-0 home victory is priced at 8.25. They beat City by a single goal at the José Avaladae 1-0, before progressing on away goals as they were narrowly beaten 3-2 in Manchester. A fabulous strike from Matías Fernández, and goalkeeping heroics by Rui Patricio were huge contributions along the way. It showed that Sporting had the mentality to grind out a result against the bigger sides.
Fernández is at 4.50 to score anytime tonight, but throughout the Europa League campaign their main danger man though has been Ricky Van Wolfswinkel. The Dutch striker has 5 goals in the competition this season, and has been devastating domestically too. Athletic will need to pay close attention to his sharp runs in the penalty area. He’s at 7.50 to open the scoring on the night. 33-year old-defender Anderson Polga has been inspired by Sá Pinto, too, putting in some vintage performances in recent months. With Athletic’s young pups springing around him, though, he's likely to commit a few fouls – so try a 4.00 for him to get a card.
Sporting are unbeaten in 11 European home games (ten wins and a draw) since a 2-0 loss to Brøndby IF in the 2010/11 UEFA Europa League play-offs, so will be confident of keeping up that streak. They’re 2.60 outright to win the game Athletic Bilbao, meanwhile, seem to have become a lot of peoples' second team this season. It owes much to the destruction of Manchester United, and subsequent all-action encounter against Schalke 04.
Marcelo Bielsa’s coaching style has been a huge hit in the Basque country, and among casual onlookers alike. Essentially though, the players have taken to the Argentinean and his strong philosophies of how to play football. It’s no surprise given their style that they are the second highest scoring team left in the competition. Defence is, of course, a key feature, but most of Athletic’s magic occurs in the final third of the field.
Ander Herrera dictates from deep as Òscar De Marcos, Markel Susaeta and Iker Muniain buzz around ahead. De Marcos is especially a threat, and at 6.00 to score anytime isn’t a bad option. Leading the attacking line is the colossal presence of Fernando Llorente. ‘The Lion King’ as he’s been donned, has 6 goals in the competition this season and has been prolific in La Liga. He’s a threat for any centre back with his size, power and understated grace. Most of all, he’s deadly in the air and a high percentage of his goals are scored with his head. Sporting won’t be able to take their eyes off him all night. He’s at 2.60 to score anytime. Athletic have hit 6 goals in the competition between the 31st and 45th minutes, while another 7 have arrived between the 61st and 75th minutes.
Gaffer Bielsa can be confident of his team shining away from home too, as they’ve achieved wins in 4 of their 6 away games including the group stages. His team is also on a 5 game unbeaten run in Europe. They’re 2.70 for the win here.
PREDICTION: 1-1, which is found at 6.00. BEST BET: Llorente to score a header is 4.00.