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