BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – Athletic Bilbao can count on home soil advantage as it looks to mount a comeback against Sporting Lisbon on Thursday and ensure an all-Spanish Europa League final against either Atletico Madrid or Valencia.
Athletic failed to win away in the first leg for the first time in the knockout round, but still carries an important away goal from last week’s 2-1 first-leg semifinal loss against the Portuguese club.
Atletico travels to Valencia holding a 4-2 advantage as the 2010 champion looks to reach its second final in three seasons at Mestalla Stadium.
The winners will meet at Bucharest’s National Arena for the May 9 final.
Athletic, which eliminated Manchester United and Schalke on route to the semifinals, is looking to reach its first European final in 35 years after the Basque club lost the 1977 UEFA Cup to Juventus.
Bilbao coach Marcelo Bielsa has centerback Javi Martinez back from suspension while forward Iker Muniain should be ready for the game after missing Sunday’s 1-0 Spanish league win over Racing Santander with an eye inflammation.
Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz said the club had to be prepared for all possibilities, including penalties.
“Sporting has shown it can score goals away from home, but we can also conjure up different qualities,” said Iraizoz, who played for Espanyol in 2007′s all-Spanish final with Sevilla. “We have to be well focused and very strong for the game, so that things turn out in our favor.”
Sporting, which eliminated Manchester City in the quarterfinals, expects to field former Villarreal player Mattias Fernandez after the Chile midfielder missed two games to injury. Midfielder Fabian Rinaudo and defender Alberto Rodriguez, however, are both sidelined by injury.
Sporting, which has never won in Spain against an opponent that has never lost to Portuguese opposition at San Mames Stadium, is unbeaten in seven overall, with six wins. The Lisbon club last reached the final in 2005, losing to CSKA Moscow.
Valencia’s stoppage-time goal in the first leg has given the 2004 UEFA Cup champions hope going into the return, although the Mediterranean club will have to keep Radamel Falcao from adding to his already impressive Europa League goal tally.
Atletico’s Colombia striker has 27 goals in 27 Europa League games for a strike rate that is only surpassed by Jupp Heynckes – now coach of Bayern Munich – and which is third all-time on the UEFA Cup-Europa League scoring list.
Valencia has never lost a European home match against a La Liga rival, while Atletico has yet to win a UEFA match on the road in Spain, although it carries a 10-game winning streak in the competition into the game.
“It’ll be important to score an away goal,” Atletico striker Adrian Lopez said. “That will pretty much sentence the series.”
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