Spanish contingent hope to extend European exploits

Athletic Bilbao take on Sporting Lisbon, while the other semi-final is an all Spanish affair between Atletico Madrid and Valencia.

Fernando Llorente says Athletic Bilbao have given their fans something to cheer about with their performance in the Europa League.
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Earlier this season Gregorio Manzano, then the coach of Atletico Madrid, laughed at the suggestion that the Europa League was not worth the trouble.

The critic, a journalist, had pointed out that their home tie against Rennes in December 2011 had attracted a crowd of just 9,000 – a quarter of their league average.

"It's the only competition we can realistically win," Manzano said. "It's impossible to win the title with Barcelona and Real Madrid so this is a chance to win a trophy in front of the rest of Europe, like this club did in 2010.

"Ask the thousands of fans who travelled to Hamburg for the final if they consider it a poor competition? Ask the players. We're serious about winning it."

Manzano had led his side through the group stages, but he did not have a chance to see how far they could progress as he was dismissed soon after.

But his successor, Diego Simeone, has continued the good work in Europe and Atleti are one of the three Spanish semi-finalists in Europa League first-leg action tonight, more evidence of Spanish clubs' excellent season on the wider stage.

Atletico host Valencia tonight in what is expected to be a sold-out Calderon. It will be Atletico's 17th game in the competition after starting out with a July qualifying tie at the Norwegian club Stromsgodset.

The low crowd against Rennes was an anomaly as they had already qualified and they have averaged over 30,000 in their Europa League games. Valencia entered the competition at the last 32 stage after finishing third in their Uefa Champions League group.

They view the Europa League not only as a distraction from their dreadful league form, but to grab a sixth European trophy below the European Cup/Champions League. Their last was the Uefa Cup, the predecessor to the Europa League, in 2004. Sevilla won the competition in 2005 and 2006 in an all Spanish final with Espanyol. The third Spanish club, Athletic Bilbao, were finalists in 1977 – and they are the most popular team with neutrals after their swashbuckling victories over Manchester United and Schalke.

Athletic play fellow Iberians, Sporting Lisbon. All will be fielding their strongest sides, sparing the Sporting fans from a repeat of what happened four years ago, when English visitors Bolton Wanderers were criticised for playing a weakened side in their last 16 Uefa Cup tie in Lisbon.

It came ahead of a vital domestic relegation game against Wigan Athletic and Bolton's priority was avoiding relegation. That they would forgo any potential prize money in favour of Premier League survival was perhaps understandable, but not that a club of Bolton's stature would forgo the opportunity of winning a major trophy.

Uefa's secondary club competition may be derided in some countries, but not in Spain.

"Our best moments this season have been in the Europa League," the Athletic and Spain striker Fernando Llorente said. "Our fans will tell you the same. The stadium has been full for games and 8,000 fans travelled to Old Trafford. We've enjoyed some nights that we'll never forgot and we want to win the competition."

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