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Saturday, April 7, 2012

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Spanish bonanza: FC Schalke's Raul (left) vies for the ball with Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martinez in Europa League action on Thursday night. The match ended in a 2-2 draw. AP

Spanish trio advances to Europa semis


MADRID — Spanish clubs continued their impressive run in European play this season as Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid and Valencia reached the Europa League semifinals alongside Sporting Lisbon on Thursday night.

Bilbao twice rallied to squash Schalke's hopes with a 2-2 draw that put it through 6-4 on aggregate, Valencia routed AZ Alkmaar 4-0 to easily go through 5-2, and Adrian Lopez scored one of the season's most memorable goals as Atletico won 2-1 at Hannover to secure a 4-2 tally after two legs.

Sporting completed the Iberian peninsula's tremendous night as it drew 1-1 at Metalist Kharkiv to go through 3-2.

Sporting plays Bilbao and Atletico faces Valencia as three Spanish clubs reached the semifinals after having done so in 2007.

Spanish clubs may owe nearly €800 million (more than $1 billion) in unpaid taxes, but they have excelled on the field this season as the Europa League hopefuls followed up Barcelona's and Real Madrid's progression into the Champions League semifinals this week.

Bilbao eliminated Manchester United before completing its passage to its first semifinal since it lost the 1977 UEFA Cup to Juventus with its unrelenting brand of attacking soccer.

"We're on the way," Susaeta said when asked if it was setting up to be a historic season for Athletic. "We're in the (Spanish) cup final, now in the semis, so it's been a good season so far."

Schalke looked keen to pull off an upset at San Mames Stadium, as Ander Herrera turned it over to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to step up and drive a shot beyond goalkeeper Gorka Iraizon to give the visitors a 28th-minute lead with his tournament-leading 10th goal.

Schalke's pressure paid off early as Bilbao failed to show its usual verve, although coach Marcelo Bielsa's decision to replace Herrera with Ibai Gomez right after the goal soon paid off. Gomez cut inside from the left to curl a perfect shot from outside the area around 'keeper Lars Unnerstall for a 41st-minute equalizer.

With the rain coming down, Raul Gonzalez scored his third goal of the series to put the German side ahead again in the 52nd.

But, three minutes later, Athletic leveled again as Iker Muniain played Susaeta into the right side of the area to beat Unnerstall with a low shot.

"It was a great series of football between two teams who gave it their all," Raul said. "We knew we had to score at least three goals and we tried."

Athletic will not have defender Javi Martinez available for the April 19 first leg at Sporting after the Spain international was booked in the second half.

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