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We can reign in Spain - Ferguson

ALEX Ferguson remains confident Manchester United can progress past Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League tonight despite their 3-2 first-leg defeat as his side have been successfully battling through adversity all season.

United leapt ahead of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table over the weekend and Ferguson believes their campaign has been one which owes as much to resilience as ability.

Deprived of key players because of injury and forced to deal with the shock of failing to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League, United find themselves in the hunt for yet another league crown and Ferguson still fancies adding the one European trophy that has eluded him.

Full of praise for Bilbao after their shock win at Old Trafford last week, Ferguson suspects the young side might struggle to maintain that level of performance, particularly as they are now the favourites and have the pressure of expectancy to contend with, as well as his players.

“It's going to be difficult for us. Bilbao have a tremendous advantage winning at Old Trafford, but it's a challenge that is not beyond us,” said Ferguson, who admitted he will probably have to sell record signing Dimitar Berbatov in the summer despite taking up the option of another year on his contract.

“Our record away from home in Europe helps us, we've done very well in the last few years, but we're going to need a very good performance. I think we've done really well to hang in there and that's more or less what we've done (in the Premier League). We've had some really good performances, but the biggest ask has been to hang in and be there no matter what the team has been.

“We've got the same against Bilbao because Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are unavailable and that's sort of a door slamming in the face again, but we keep carrying on and it points to a resilience in the team that's really admirable.

“We've kept the pressure on (City). We got a break at the weekend and we hope we don't slip up and we win all our remaining games. Our run in on paper looks OK, but you have to win them on the field and we've done that the last few seasons very well.

“The players have done exceptionally well and it's an achievement we're still hanging in there in the league and we're still in this game. I think the players really believe that.”

Despite the brave words, history does not favour United. On the two occasions they have attempted a comeback after a first-leg defeat at Old Trafford, against Bayern Munich in 2001 and AC Milan four years later, they have lost the away leg as well.

Five years ago, United did overturn a first-leg deficit, beating Roma 7-1, but that came on home soil and their task is not made any easier by Bilbao, who are unbeaten in 12 games at San Mames.

Even a 2-1 defeat at Osasuna in La Liga last weekend has not done anything to deflate the confidence in Marcelo Bielsa's exciting young side, but Ferguson will ignore another depressing statistic that shows his team have only won two of their last 19 games in Spain.

“We always feel if we get to this stage of the season, we're expected to win (every game) and I expect to win,” added Ferguson. “We've got to bank on the fact we will play a lot better than we did at Old Trafford and I'm sure we will. We saw plenty of evidence last week of an emerging team that has the prospect of doing very, very well. It was an outstanding performance by them, their energy was unbelievable.


“They had the highest stats, in terms of distance run, of any team at Old Trafford in the last 10 years. That's great credit to, not just their energy, but their desire to do well.

“They had great motivation to do that coming to Old Trafford, whether they can maintain that seven days later, we will have to wait and see.”

We will also have to wait to see whether Berbatov is involved after Ferguson admitted he is likely to move the Bulgarian on in the summer.

“From the chats I've had with him, at his age of 31, he is looking for first-team football,” he added. “I can't guarantee him that and it's something we'll have to look at in the summer. It might lead him to look elsewhere.”