ALEX FERGUSON faces gambling with Manchester United's hopes of retaining the Premier League in an attempt to keep alive his side's faltering Europa League campaign.
The United manager, whose side fell to their second successive Europa league defeat in the 3-2 home loss to Athletic Bilbao, again cited a lack of defensive experience and suggested he is considering resting Rio Ferdinand from Sunday's match with West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford - to have him fresh for next Thursday's last-16 return.
"He is such a great player and with his experience away from home it's a possibility (that I'll rest him for West Brom)," said Ferguson, who insisted the tie was still alive for his club.
"I think I will gamble a couple on Sunday for Thursday's game."
Ferguson lost Chris Smalling, whose stitches from a deep wound sustained playing for England came undone, leaving him a doubt for the weekend.
He admitted that his side, who lost at home to Ajax last month, had again been made to look second best in Europe's junior competition.
"Our defending wasn't very good tonight," he said. "No doubt they were the better team, very aggressive in terms of their attacking and pressing the ball."
Ferguson said last night's defeat reflected what he said was a struggle to deal with the cycle of Thursday and Sunday matches.
"It's an uphill fight for us," Ferguson said. "The question is can we win the match? We can win the match over there. We are finding it maybe difficult to marry the games Thursday and Sundays."
Ferguson contested two of Bilbao's goals -- justifiably claiming that the second by Oscar de Marcos was offside and complaining about the award of a free-kick prior to Iker Muniain's third goal after Patrice Evra attempted to play with one boot off. UEFA guidelines say that an indirect free-kick should be awarded if a player fails to play with both boots on.
"I think half the team were arguing with the referee for the third goal and got caught short in that respect," Ferguson said.
"But our attacking play was pretty good, then the second goal put us on the back foot again. If (the second) it was given offside we could have won the game probably - though not deservedly."
Ferguson said his opposite number Marcelo Bielsa had "built (Athletic) to press the ball on the pitch -- never stop running. The difference is we are playing big competitions all the time."
Bielsa said the tie remained open. "I think it's an indication of how good our opponents are that they didn't need to create too many chances to get two goals," he said.
"We probably were better in general play than United but it's a compliment to our opponents and expression of their quality that we could only beat them by a deficit of one."
Ferguson also disclosed in the course of his post-match press conference that he is bemused to have been asked by the Premier League not to discuss the possible appointment of Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp as the next England manager.
"You know I got the letter from the (Premier) League asking me not to discuss the England manger's job," he said.
"I've no idea (why)." The league later indicated it has written to all member clubs at Tottenham's request, reminding them that it is a breach of rules to discuss the employment prospects of managers contracted to one of its clubs.