LISBON: Sporting Clube of Portugal hit back from a goal down to succeed where Schalke and Manchester United had failed in managing to inflict a rare Europa League defeat on Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao.
The Portuguese Lions snatched a 2-1 win from what had appeared, at one stage, to be certain defeat in pursuit of a place in the final in Bucharest next month. In the other semi-final first leg the all-Spanish clash saw Atletico de Madrid thump Valencia 4-2 with two goals from Radamel Falcao – last season’s top scorer in the competition.
Leftback Jon Aurtenetxe put Bilbao ahead in the 53rd minute and the Basques appeared ready to endorse their command with more goals. But an opportunistic header from leftback Emiliano Insua brought Sporting on terms against the run of play.
Bilbao, looking for their first major trophy since 1984, suddenly looked tired and fragile. Sporting, encouraged, surged forward and were perhaps a little unlucky to claim only one more goal – four minutes later – from dangerous winger Diego Capel.
In the other all-Iberian tie, Atletico Madrid moved closer to their second Europa League final in three years after two goals from Radamel Falcao and further strikes from Miranda and Adrian Lopez gave them a 4-2 win over Spanish rivals Valencia.
The hosts started brightly and could have been ahead even earlier as Diego Alves saved from Diego and Adrian before the latter showed great persistence to set up Falcao for the easiest of headers to open the scoring on 18 minutes. After that initial burst from Atletico though, Valencia started to gain a foothold in the game and equalised in first-half stoppage time as Jonas swept home Adil Rami’s knockdown.
However, 2010 Europa League winners Atletico started the second period in even stronger fashion and scored twice in nine minutes as Miranda took advantage of some slack marking to head home Diego’s free-kick before Adrian slotted past Alves from a narrow angle.
Falcao looked to have all but sealed Atletico’s place in the final in Bucharest with a sensational strike from outside the area that went in off the bar 12 minutes from time, but Ricardo Costa headed home from another corner with virtually the last touch of the game to give Valencia hope ahead of next week’s return at the Mestalla.
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