With Manchester City still two points ahead in the Premier League Manchester United have a welcome distraction in the Europa league and their first leg clash against Athletic de Bilbao to look forward to on Thursday night.

Alex Ferguson and Manchester United are somewhat “through the looking glass” here as they are virtual strangers to the Europa League. After being so rudely dumped out of the Champions League and facing their most serious challenge to the Premier League yet, from their cross-city noisy neighbours the Europa League trophy would sit very comfortably in their cabinet this year.

Getting near the sharp end

Javier HernandezWe are now down to the last 16 of Europe League which means only four teams stand between Manchester United and the trophy. At present, soccer odds list the Manchester side at 11/4 lift the Europa Cup, 4/11 to qualify for the next round, and even better than that they are 4/9 to win this game.

Bilbao currently sit fifth in the La Liga on 37 points, an insurmountable 30 points behind league leaders Real Madrid and still 20 points behind second placed Barcelona. What's more interesting for Bilbao is that only five points separates fourth-place Levante UD and 11th place Espanyol. Which means, I'm tempted to say, the Europa League is less important to Bilbao (and its fans) with league position hanging so precariously.

What is perhaps even more telling is that Bilbao has the main distraction of the Copa del Ray final against Barcelona to look forward to on 25th May. That could even be considered a better chance of silverware as Bilbao have manages to draw three of their last four games against Barcelona and have only been beaten (and then only be by single goal) once in that spell. Still, sportsbooks list Bilbao at 19/5 to lift that trophy and 16/1 to lift the Europa cup.

Best begun is half done

The second leg of this last 16 tie will be played at the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao and I thoroughly expect Manchester United take with them a decent first-leg score when they go there on 15th March. That match will be the first time the Red Devils have visited Athletic de Bilbao since January 1957, back then they lost 5-3 in a European Cup quarter-final (a score available with the soccer betting odds of 500/1 this time), but managed to turn the tie around in the second leg in Manchester. How times have changed, as back then their second leg was played at Maine Road as Old Trafford didn't have any floodlights.

A below par United is still an above average team

Despite their league position Manchester United hardly look like them all conquering European force this season, and in their last Europa League game they went down 2-1 to Ajax at Old Trafford and only advanced thanks to their aggregate score of 3-2. An identical defeat is offered up by the bookies at 20/1. Progression is still progression but nobody will be feeling overly confident after Ajax had 58% of the possession and outshot United 10 to 6 (7 to 5 on target) in that game.

Alex Ferguson stepped up to shoulder the blame for the defeat, saying, "I've got to accept I'm responsible for picking the team and I picked too many young players in the back four positions, it was a big risk I took."

What's more, in United's last four European games played at Old Trafford they've only managed one victory; when they Beat Otelul Galati 2-0, the other two games were drawn; 2-2 with Benfica and 3-3 with Basel, dating back to last September. Any draw, which would be a huge result for Bilbao, is available at 16/5 with the bookies.

I doubt very much that will see a risk of any size on Thursday night, I'm expecting a fine performance and a typical scoreline at Old Trafford with a strong United victory, the bookies agree and have United winning at any score at 1/2.

Prediction: United win comfortably 2-0 available at 6/1.