Aymeric Laporte
Aymeric Laporte is being scouted by Manchester UnitedGetty

Manchester United have stepped up their interest in Athletic Bilbao defender Aymeric Laporte and have made him their priority target for the summer. The defender is being viewed as a long-term partner for Chris Smalling, who has come of age this season after a series of impressive performances at the back.

Manchester Evening News suggests that United are still going forward with pursuing their transfer targets in conversation with Louis van Gaal, despite question marks over the manager's future after the end of the current season. The 21-year-old is among the many defenders being pursued alongside John Stones of Everton and Raphael Varane from Real Madrid.

Laporte has a £32m ($46m) release clause in his current contract, which is being handled by agent Jorge Mendes, with whom the Red Devils have a glowing relationship. Mendes had facilitated the transfer of Radamel Falcao to Old Trafford and also oversaw David de Gea's contract situation at the club, which eventually led to the Spaniard signing a new deal to extend his stay in Manchester.

Director Ed Woodward is aware of the complexities in completing a deal with Bilbao, given their experience with Ander Herrera. However, with the La Liga club currently struggling in sixth spot, it is imperative that the Red Devils qualify for the Champions League, failing which it would be difficult to prise the Frenchman away. Laporte is yet to be capped on an international level for France and given his inexperience, is unlikely to make the squad for the 2016 European Championships later in the year.

The defender has made 23 starts for Bilbao this season, scoring three goals and assisting one in the process. Apart from his solidity in defence, he is also known for his prowess in the opposition penalty box where he can successfully attack set-pieces to good effect.

United are currently fifth in the league, six points adrift of Manchester City, who are fourth. The Red Devils were robbed off three points against Chelsea when Diego Costa scored the equaliser in the dying minutes of injury time to get a share of the spoils at Stamford Bridge.