LONDON — Manchester United's rare foray into European football's second tier gives it a chance to renew another old acquaintance Thursday when it hosts Atletico Bilbao in the Europa League.
Having reached the round of 16 by winning its first encounter with Ajax since 1976, United is up against a Spanish side it has not played since 1957.
Back then, Bilbao beat United 5-3 in the quarterfinals of the old European Cup before the so-called "Busby Babes" advanced to a semifinal against defending champion — and eventual winner — Real Madrid with a 3-0 second-leg win.
With a record of one win from four matches contributing to its demotion from the Champions League to the Europa League, United's home form in Europe is less impressive this season but Bilbao's players are still excited.
"It's a dream for us to play at Manchester just like it's a dream for our fans to see us play at Old Trafford," defender Jon Aurtenetxe said. "The best result would be a victory. But we're aware of how difficult that will be, so we'll try to produce the best possible result.
"We'll give it our all. Let's see if we can give them a scare."
Bilbao center back Fernando Amorebieta is suspended but Spain forwards Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain are available, as are dangerous midfielders Markel Susaeta and Ander Herrera.
Llorente has 12 goals in 18 appearances since returning from injury in January, helping the Basque club get this far and to reach the Copa del Rey final.
Bilbao has never won in seven trips to England — losing six times — but can take heart from the 2-1 win by Ajax last month that nearly took the Dutch club through against United. Ajax was eliminated 3-2 on aggregate but came close to scoring the third goal that would have carried it through on away goals.
Defender Chris Smalling should return to United's lineup after recovering from a head injury sustained playing for England, while Anderson could make his first appearance since Jan. 8. Tom Cleverley and Antonio Valencia are unlikely to be fit but Valencia could make next week's second-leg match in Spain.
In another of Thursday's eight matches, United's local rival, Manchester City, is at Sporting Lisbon.
City is two points clear at the top of the Premier League and warmed up with a routine 2-0 win over Bolton on Saturday.
Sporting is coming off a surprise 1-0 defeat to struggling Vitoria Setubal that ended a three-game winning run and left the club 14 points behind leader FC Porto, a team that City demolished 6-1 over two games in the last round.
Atletico Madrid, the winner of the inaugural Europa League in 2010, remains in good form ahead of its game against Besiktas with only a single loss since coach Diego Simeone took over at the start of this year — and that a 2-1 loss to Barcelona.Comment on this story
Atletico is without Brazilian playmaker Diego and defender Antonio Lopez, and Turkey midfielder Arda Turan remains a doubtful starter for the match against his countrymen at the Vicente Calderon.
Striker Radamel Falcao and defender Diego Godin are expected to return after missing Saturday's 1-1 draw at Sevilla.
Valencia, the third Spanish club in action, hosts PSV Eindhoven in the teams' first meeting since the group stage of the 1999-2000 Champions League. FC Twente hosts Germany's Schalke and a third Dutch team, AZ Alkmaar, is up against Udinese.
Hannover is at Standard Liege and Olympiakos is at Metalist Kharkiv.