February 6 is a poignant date for Manchester United fans. On that day, in 1958, many of Sir Matt Busby's young team were killed on a runway in Munich. Just one year before, on the same date, United hosted Athletic Bilbao in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. United had lost the first leg of the tie in the San Mamés stadium 5-3. Three weeks later they welcomed the Basque team to Manchester. The game was played in front of 65,000 fans at Maine Road, as Old Trafford's floodlights were not installed until March of that year. United won the game 3-0 with goals from Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor, who became the highest scorers in that season's tournament.

Tonight United face another European test against Athletic Bilbao. The winners of this tie will not look forward to a glamorous trip to the Bernabéu to face Alfredo Di Stéfano's Real Madrid in a European Cup semi-final. But, as in February 1957, United's heritage is at stake.

The club have a proud European history that doesn't need to be repeated here. But, for the benefit of some United fans, it is worth remembering that not everything resolves around the League battle with City this season. Over the past few days, United fans have been moaning about tonight's game - and not just because Athletic have charged travelling fans an outrageous £77.50 for a ticket, which makes it United's most expensive European match outside of a final.

Most United supporters seem to wish the tie could be forfeited so the team can concentrate on the all-Manchester battle at the top of the league. Supporters have suggested that Alex Ferguson should play the kids and rest the key players for the trip to Wolves on Sunday to ensure that pressure on City is maintained. As one fan put it, his team selection tonight would include "the tea lady, the groundsman and Mike Phelan".

No one wants to surrender any of the momentum gathered in the league over the past few weeks, but that should not come at the cost of the this Europa League campaign. A 6pm kick-off on a Thursday evening is nobody's definition of glamour, but United fans should be able to motivate themselves for any European tie. A win in Bilbao tonight could be a massive result in the context of the season.

Athletic Bilbao deserve more respect. They are a proper club with a true European pedigree. They are, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, the only club that has never been relegated from the Primera Liga. They have not lost at home in the league since November. Barcelona only managed to scrape a draw at the San Mamés this season thanks to an injury-time equaliser from Lionel Messi. And Athletic have only lost to an English side at home once- a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool in 1983.

United's form in Europe has been awful this season. Their Champions League campaign spluttered to an ignominious end when they lost at Basel, who were humiliated by Bayern Munich on Tuesday night. Their form in Spain is not much better. In 19 matches in the country, United have won only twice. Ferguson could pick a full-strength team tonight and still lose the match and the tie. But he owes it to the club's history to at least try and turn over the first-leg scoreline.

Momentum is a curious thing in football. It is difficult to imagine how United would have won the Premier League and Champions League in 1999 had they not beaten Arsenal in the semi-final of the FA Cup at Villa Park. And they would probably have won the 1995 FA Cup final had they beaten West Ham and won the Premier League the week before. Tonight's game is about continuing United's European heritage, but with the league hanging in the balance, it is no time to start developing a losing mentality. Paul Campbell

Comments (6)
Comment by t.j.vickerman 2012-03-15 13:50:39

I really don't understand the modern mentality of 'let's sacrifice this trophy for another one'. The evidence tends to suggest it simply doesn't work. Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa sacrificed a chance of UEFA Cup glory to boost their prospects of finishing 4th and claiming a Champions League spot a couple of years back. That went well. I agree entirely that it seems more important to maintain a winning mentality.

Comment by ooh aah 2012-03-15 15:06:54

"The evidence tends to suggest it simply doesn't work."

That's going a bit far I think, there's probably just as many examples of it working as not. Clubs regularly sacrifice the league cup, without any loss of momentum in other competitions. Squad size, aspirations etc have a lot to do with it. At a big club, that regularly challenges for honours, there's often one competition each season that gets sacrificed, and the players are used to it, and are better able to maintain their momentum. Whereas at Villa, where expectations were a little lower, it didn't really work.

I guess it all depends on the approach to the competition from the start. Given that Utd did not have any intention of being in the Europa league a few months ago I think it could easily have been sacrificed in much the same way as the league cup. And besides their poor performance in the first leg didn't have any ill effects on the weekend. Frankly I'd trade in the Europa league to have Valencia back right now, he was playing really well before he got injured against Ajax

Comment by Coral 2012-03-15 18:42:19

"That's going a bit far I think, there's probably just as many examples of it working as not. Clubs regularly sacrifice the league cup, without any loss of momentum in other competitions"

Wrong. Arsenal didn't win the League Cup last season and they didn't qualify for the Champion's league last year and it is same again this year. Oh actually...

Comment by Alex Walker 2012-03-15 22:12:20

Well done United.

Comment by geobra 2012-03-15 23:44:26

In 1980-81 West Ham played 61 games. 42 in Division 2 (won by 13 points), 9 in the League Cup (losing finalists), 6 in the Cup Winners Cup (reached quarter final) 3 in the FA Cup (lost to Wrexham after two replays) plus the Charity Shield. We all knew what the team was because the vast majority of them played in nearly every match:

Parkes, Stewart, Lampard, Bonds, Martin, Devonshire, Holland (Neighbour), Goddard, Cross, Brooking, Pike.

They didn't snub any competition. They always put out their best available team. They didn't 'rest' players. They just did their job, which was to play football matches.

After their Europa League eliminations, Manchester United and Manchester City will end up playing 54 games this season.

The idea that Premier league teams play more today than they used to is wrong - there are four fewer league games for a start. And back then there were far more cup replays too. What has happened is that teams now assemble huge squads and they have to find excuses for giving match practice to those who do not play regularly in the league. And of course achieving certain goals now brings in huge amounts of money that weren't around in 1980.

But one fact is for sure. One out of Manchester United and Manchester City will end up winning nothing this season.

Comment by geobra 2012-03-16 20:04:25

I think that one of the reasons why people believe that there is more football today is because it's now spread over so many days and played at so many different times. When matches basically took place on Saturday afternoons and Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, the game wasn't so pervasive as it is today. But as I argue above, the reality is that in general teams are not actually playing more matches than they did 30 years ago.

When I referred to West Ham and their settled 1980-81 team, (they used just 17 players in 61 games) I could of course have applied the same argument to Liverpool, their League Cup final opponents, though in the replay they did introduce a new player, one Ian Rush. It would be nice to write 'and he scored, of course'. But he didn't. The goals came from Goddard, Dalglish and Hansen.

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