Latin tests for English pace-setters

Manchester City and Manchester United will briefly put aside their jockeying for position in the English Premier League title race on Thursday when both try to propel themselves towards the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals.

Deprived of involvement in the business end of the UEFA Champions League season after underwhelming group stage campaigns, both are using the continent's bridesmaid tournament as a chance to retain their profile beyond the domestic game - even if supremacy at home is the main target.

Three-times European champions United can at least look at the event as a bonus of sorts in that few and far between are the clubs who have won all three of UEFA's main European club trophies - including the now defunct Cup Winners Cup.

Only Ajax, Bayern Munich and Juventus have lifted the European Cup/Champions League, the Cup Winners Cup and the Europa League (formerly the UEFA Cup or Fairs Cup before that).

On a personal note, United's long-serving coach Sir Alex Ferguson would, if his charges lift the cup, become only the third coach to have lifted all three competitions after Giovanni Trapattoni and Udo Lattek.

Completing the set, while a lesser priority than overhauling City in the title race, would add a layer of kudos as United look to tackle Spain's Athletic Bilbao.

On a poignant note, the clubs have not met since 1957, when Sir Matt Busby was in the early days of building a side which would conquer Europe in 1968 - but only after the tragedy of the 1958 Munich air crash in which many of the stars of that first tie perished.

United advanced on that occasion 6-5 on aggregate but will hope for a clearer cut outcome on this occasion, especially given that Athletic have not won in seven previous visits to England.

In United's only previous run to the last 16 in 1985 they lost to Hungary's Videoton FC on a penalty shoot-out.

Ferguson's men will certainly not underestimate rivals who have their own primary focus on domestic matters given the Basque outfit lie fifth in the Spanish league this season, just a point off the final Champions League qualifying berth following their weekend success over Real Sociedad.

City eye end to long European drought
City, like United forced to scale down their European ambitions after being bested in the Champions League by Napoli and Bayern Munich, visit Sporting Lisbon on a high after emphatically ousting holders Porto in the previous round.

Their latest Portuguese test sees them visit a side unbeaten in their past nine home European encounters but City will take great heart from the fact they won their away leg at Porto. With Sporting a distant fourth in a Portuguese table led by Porto, City handler Roberto Mancini will expect to advance.

City's only European silverware to date is the 1970 Cup Winners Cup but the 'Blues' will see a positive omen in that they ousted another Portuguese club, Coimbra, along the way that year.

City's Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero has fond memories of this stage of the 2010 tournament from in that his double strike in Lisbon while with eventual winners Atletico Madrid put the Portuguese out.

In other first leg encounters, two other Spanish sides will be out to bolster the reputation of La Liga with Atletico meeting Turkey's Besiktas and two-times Champions League finalists and Valencia, 2004 winners of the UEFA Cup, precursor of the Europa League, hosting Dutch side PSV Eindhoven.

Dutch interest continues with two other ties as AZ Alkmaar, losing finalists to Ipswich Town in 1981, meet Udinese of Italy - another side who are on the cusp of making it into the Champions League - while Steve McClaren's Enschede take on 1997 winners Schalke of Germany.

Completing the line-up are Metalist Kharkiv of Ukraine - tournament top scorers to date this season - and Greek side Olympiacos and the meeting between Belgians Standard Liege and Germany's unsung Hannover.