Sir Alex Ferguson enjoyed pointing to the black and white photograph of José Iribar on the wall and regaling his audience with the story of how he scored past the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper for Rangers in a 4-1 victory in the Fairs Cup in 1969 but overseeing progress against the same team as a manager, more than 40 years later, promises to be a much tougher task.

Bilbao go into the second leg of tonight's last-16 Europa League tie against Manchester United with a 3-2 lead that Ferguson admitted gives them a "tremendous advantage". United are famed for their acts of escapology and Ferguson pointed to their decent away record in recent times as a reason to be optimistic, although the reality is that they have never gone through in a European tie after losing the first leg at home.

Ferguson had one eye on the Premier League when he picked his team for the first leg but Sunday's trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers seems unlikely to impact on his selection here. As well as stressing how keen he is to try to win the Europa League, the United manager is limited with his options because Phil Jones has joined Nani and Anderson on the sidelines after being ruled out with flu and Chris Smalling will be fit enough only for a place on the bench, meaning Rio Ferdinand will play alongside Jonny Evans in central defence.

A clean sheet at one end and two goals at the other would be enough to see United through, although that will be easier said than done. "It's a difficult tie for us. Bilbao have a tremendous advantage," Ferguson said. "It's a challenge but it's not one beyond us. I think our record away from home in Europe helps us we've done really well the last few years. We are banking on our performance being better than it was at Old Trafford and I am sure it will be."

Bilbao were exhilarating to watch in that first leg as Marcelo Bielsa's side played with wonderful attacking abandon. "I think we saw plenty of evidence last week of an emerging, young team that has got the prospect of doing very, very well," Ferguson said. "It was an outstanding performance by them, not only just in their ability but their energy was unbelievable, the highest stats of any team that has played at Old Trafford in the last 10 years, in terms of the distance run, and that is great credit to the desire of the team to do well.

"They had a great motivation last week coming to Old Trafford and whether they can sustain that seven days later is difficult to say but we expect that. So I think the most important thing is our performance level has to step up."

To give an idea of the task facing United, Bilbao are unbeaten in their last 12 games at home and have won 10 of them, scoring 30 goals in the process and conceding eight. Earlier in the season Barcelona were held to a 2-2 draw and the only time Bilbao have lost to an English club on home soil was back in 1983, when Liverpool won 1-0 through an Ian Rush goal.

Perhaps the most sobering statistic, though, is that United's 19 matches in Spain, across 55 years, have yielded only two victories. That sequence dates back to United's only previous visit to San Mamés, in January 1957, when the Busby Babes lost 5-3 in the first leg of their European Cup quarter-final but reached the last four of the competition after winning 3-0 in the second leg, which was played at Maine Road because Old Trafford did not have floodlights.

It would be tempting to suggest not an awful lot has changed at San Mamés since those days. The famous old stadium, which is known as "The Cathedral" and will start to be dismantled at the end of the season as Bilbao prepare to move to a new home a stone's throw away, is a throwback to a bygone era but has a reputation for producing a remarkable atmosphere.

Dimitar Berbatov is once again likely to be on the periphery of things and Ferguson admitted that, although United will take up the option on his contract, the Bulgarian has become so frustrated with his lack of opportunities that he is likely to be move on in the summer. "For a player of his age and his ability, it is disappointing for him that he isn't getting first-team football, so we really need to look at that at the end of the season," he said. "I will listen to what he says himself. It's difficult for me to guarantee [first-team football] so it could lead to him looking elsewhere."

Athletic Bilbao (4-1-4-1, probable): Iraizoz; Iraola, Martínez, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe; Iturraspe; Susaeta, de Marcos, Herrera, Muniain; Llorente

Manchester United (4-2-3-1, probable): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Rooney, Park; Welbeck

Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)

TV: Five, 5.15pm