Europa League: Lisbon is last hurdle for Spanish

WHIle Barcelona and Real Madrid chase a “clasico” Champions League final, Sporting Lisbon are the only team keeping Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid and Valencia from making the Europa League finale an all-Spanish affair.

Valencia travel to Atletico for the first leg of their semi-final tonight, while Bilbao play at Lisbon looking to maintain their status as competition favourite.

Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has managed to get the most out of Bilbao’s young, talented squad, whose brazen and fearless displays have seen the all-Basque club eliminate Manchester United and Schalke from the competition.

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Not to be outdone, Sporting ended Manchester City’s European ambitions in the quarter-finals to ensure a second straight all-Iberian final.

Bilbao already have a date with Barcelona in May’s Copa del Rey final and know reaching the 9 May final in Bucharest would make this one of their most successful seasons. “We have to play like ourselves as we always do,” midfielder Ander Iturraspe said. “We’re not going to speculate on the result. We’re going there to win, to give it our all like we always do.”

Bilbao can also count on the return of forward Iker Muniain and midfielder Carlos Gurpegui, who was included in the squad for the first time since a knee injury sidelined him in October. Defender Javi Martinez is suspended.

Sporting’s domestic form has improved since Ricardo Sa Pinto took over as coach after the firing of Domingos Paciencia, who had led Braga to the final against FC Porto last year.

Sporting are at full strength with only American defender Oguchi Onyewu absent with a long-term knee injury ahead of the teams’ first meeting since the 1985-86 season, when the Portuguese club emerged victorious over two legs.

Only Atletico have scored more goals than Athletic in the competition.

Colombian striker Radamel Falcao scored his 30th goal in all competitions in Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano, and has a chance to finish as the competition’s top scorer following Klass-Jan Huntelaar’s exit with Schalke.

Huntelaar leads the standings with ten goals, two better than Falcao.

Atletico playmaker Diego is available at the Vicente Calderon stadium, but will have to be careful as a booking will rule him out of the next week’s return leg and the final.