Preview: Sporting Lisbon v Athletic Bilbao
Athletic Bilbao will hope to continue their superb away form in Europe at Sporting Lisbon.
Sporting Lisbon will look to prevent an all-Spanish UEFA Europa League final as Athletic Bilbao visit the Portuguese capital in their semi-final opener.
Having reached the final of the UEFA Cup in 2005 as a player with Sporting Lisbon, Ricardo Sá Pinto is striving to repeat the feat as coach of the Lisbon side. The 39-year-old, who has been handed a contract until the end of next season, was promoted from his role as a youth trainer at the club when Domingos Paciência was sacked in mid-February.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel's five goals have been instrumental in Sporting's progress to the last four, the pick of them being a cheeky near-post flick on matchday two against Lazio. "I'm looking forward to enjoying the spectacular atmosphere of the Europa League further still," said the striker, signed last summer from Utrecht. "I have never played against Athletic – they will be two very interesting matches for us."
Having already accounted for the likes of Manchester United and Schalke 04, Athletic Bilbao will look to seal their passage to a first European final since the 1976/77 campaign when they lost out to Juventus for the UEFA Cup. The arrival of Marcelo Bielsa as coach meant a radical change to the Basque side's playing style but with a successful run in the UEFA Europa League and a Copa del Rey final coming up against Barcelona in May, the squad have shown their willingness to adapt to the Argentinian's methods. FIFA World Cup winner Javi Martínez has proved a calming presence, while Ander Herrera's class in midfield and Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente's attacking menace have combined to offer new hope to the fans at San Mamés.
These sides' only previous meetings came in the 1985/86 UEFA Cup third round, where Javier Clemente's Athletic beat Sporting 2-1 in Bilbao before succumbing 3-0 in Lisbon. Manuel José's team bowed out to Köln in the next round, the quarter-finals.
Sporting are unbeaten in 11 European home games since a 2-0 loss to Brøndby in the 2010/11 UEFA Europa League play-offs. Athletic have won four of their six away matches since the start of the group stage, and are on a five-game unbeaten run in Europe.
Athletic are the second most prolific side left in the competition with 24 goals, one fewer than Atlético Madrid. Athletic's top scorer this season is Fernando Llorente with six strikes since the start of the group stage, one more than Sporting’s top marksman, Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
If Athletic beat Sporting, the competition will be decided in an all-Spanish final. That was also the case in the UEFA Cup final in 2006/07, when Sevilla beat Espanyol on penalties after a 2-2 draw.