Fergie the Gambler? Is the Athletic Bilbao tie the priority over West Brom?

Will Fergie use Rio against West Brom or against Athletic Bilbao on Thursday?

Some have reasonably questioned Manchester United's commitment to winning the Europa League. In my opinion, it's fair to bring up because the club's undoubted number one priority right now is lifting the Premier League trophy come May. Sir Alex Ferguson has publicly stated that the clear intent is to win Europe's secondary continental competition and the manager has continually reassured prior to these matches that he'd field a strong side. Fergie has deployed strong sides because of the club's squad depth but in truth, he hasn't exactly chosen what anyone would deem to be his first choice XI at the moment. Had these been Champions League clashes, stronger starting XI's would have been selected and squad rotation would have been more limited. Conquering England's top-flight for the club's 20th time is the club's clear aim.

Because of this, I found some quotes from the United boss interesting. The Red Devils were very much outclassed on Thursday night at Old Trafford by Athletic. The performance annoyed me -- and the clearness of Athletic's superiority on that particular night was alarming. However, I wasn't gutted like I would have been had that been the first-leg of a Champions League knockout stage tie. It appears though that the result has Fergie churning the wheels in his head.

When asked about his selection choices for tomorrow's league clash versus West Bromwich Albion (*), Fergie provided some predictable answers by essentially saying that Nani and Paul Scholes -- two players who didn't start versus Athletic -- would return to the side. When the topic of defender Rio Ferdinand came up -- more specifically whether he would left out again versus the Baggies -- Fergie had this to say:

(*) Match Preview: Manchester United vs. West Bromwich Albion

"Rio is such a great player and he has great experience. It depends on Chris Smalling. His stitches came open in the first half. We thought we’d patched them up at half time but they came open again. It’s a possibility. I will maybe gamble with a couple on Sunday for Thursday’s game."

- Ferguson | Source: ManUtd.com

The word 'gamble' caught my attention. It appears that Fergie is contemplating using Ferdinand -- who because of his chronic back issue is preferred to only feature once a week -- in Spain on Thursday and resting him against West Brom. Smalling may deputise for Ferdinand if the former is deemed okay to feature after receiving multiple knocks to the head in recent weeks. The league title chase is still obviously the top priority for the club right now but I found it interesting that Fergie is possibly worried and prioritizes the Europa League enough to even consider this. West Brom are a side in good form right now having won three successive league matches and that includes a 1-0 defeat of Chelsea FC last weekend. Fergie admitted as much:

"West Brom are in a bit of form. But we’re at home and we’re expected to win our games at home and hopefully we can put this [Thursday's] result behind us."

- Ferguson

Perhaps what Fergie means by 'gamble' here is taking a calculated risk at home versus a decent West Brom side by resting Ferdinand -- in fairness to his possible deputy Smalling, he's obviously a talented player himself -- so that United can have a go versus Athletic on Thursday. The Red Devils will likely need a two goal advantage on Thursday in Bilbao -- unless they can force extra time by earning a 3-2 advantage after 90 minutes -- so perhaps Fergie wants the intelligent Ferdinand providing deep cover against the possible onslaught of counterattacks.

Ferdinand is the micro issue here though and the macro one is that Fergie is certainly showing desire while competing in the Europa League. That he would even consider sitting his injury-prone first-choice center-back for a league tie during an intensely challenging title-race so that he can potentially be involved for Thursday's game versus Athletic is gamble that shows the Europa League may be a bigger priority to the club than many of us realized. Even if Smalling doesn't feature in place of Ferdinand versus West Brom, the gamble that Fergie is considering offers up food for thought.

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