Athletic Bilbao secured a famous win over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Thursday. They only have themselves to blame...
Proclaimed by many fans as the biggest clash of the last 16 of the Europa League, Athletic Bilbao overran Manchester United in the first leg of their tie at Old Trafford, a result which leaves Fergie’s men needing at least two goals in the return leg at the San Mames to get through to the quarter finals, a task - which on seeing United’s performance last night - looks plainly impossible. United were nervous, measured and timid as they were completely outclassed by a young Athletic side, who will deservedly be Basque-ing in the glory for quite a while.
Ever since this season began, the teams Ferguson has fielded in Europe have had a whiff of sheer arrogance about them. The nonchalance with which Ferguson’s teams have performed with so far has been shocking. Matches against Basel and Otelul Galati - teams they should have trampled over - became nightmares for every United fan, as Galati very nearly made them pay and Basel deservedly knocked them out of the Champions League. In the wake of that match, Basel’s Xherdan Shaqiri had this to say :
“United underestimated us. You could feel it in the tunnel and even in the warm-up.”
“They weren't fully focused and I'm not sure a United player made one sprint. Afterwards, you couldn't even swap shirts - they were gone that quickly.”
In essence, Shaqiri has hit the proverbial nail bang on the head. And it seems old habits die hard for Ferguson. The same complacent attitude that has dogged their UCL disaster has trotted alongside them to the Europa League. The second leg at Ajax typified their laggardly attitude to the game. Ajax brushed aside United’s presumptuous ball play and came extremely close to pulling of a coup de maître in front of the OT faithful, reminding us yet again of something Vicente del Bosque said in 2003 :
“Its always attractive to play against Manchester United because they allow you to play.”
del Bosque has been amply vindicated by United’s play on Thursday night. From the moment the squad lists were announced, there was an almost imperceptible “oh sh**” feeling around Old Trafford. Playing Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones against a middle three who had very nearly overpowered Barcelona (something which Ferguson hasn’t done in a while, at least not when it mattered) wasn’t just bad, it was downright idiotic. Personally, I’m a huge admirer of Giggs, but there was no way he could stem the tide on his own, especially when his partner Jones has the tactical awareness of a moose on ecstasy.
And based on this performance, you’re better off wagering on the Sky Blues
Jones has been brilliant for him this season at everywhere except centre back, but what must be noted is that his Robson-esque performances came when he was paired with Michael Carrick. This worked because Carrick is technically proficient enough to sit deep and defend, while Jones goes about rampaging the opposition. However, alongside someone much more creative like Giggs, he was expected to stay put and cover the defenders - something he failed at spectacularly. On the wings, the situation was just as dire. On one side, Ashley Young was trying and failing to make things happen, while on the other, Sung-Ji Park (as Carlton Palmer calls him) was pointedly pathetic. Finally, United’s front line looked just like the Soviet frontline after the Battle of Prussia. Go on, take a guess as to how that went.
The match was truly won and lost (mostly lost) in defence. Bilbao’s defence, despite key players missing, was stubborn and unrelenting against United’s one-paced attack, while United’s was an utter shambles. Patrice Evra, who has been unfailingly terrible for approximately two years now was the catalyst in United shooting themselves in the foot. Instead of preventing crosses from getting in, Captain un-Fantastic decided to ignore them altogether, which went very well indeed. Evra should have blocked Susaeta’s cross for the first goal, should have marked De Marcos (a right midfielder who somehow managed to sneak into the left of the box) for the second goal, and was left for dead when Athletic broke for the third goal - which incidentally came when an unmarked De Marcos was in acres of space down the right. Lamentable.
On minor note, Fergie did use all of his substitutes for a change. Although none of them made much impact. Carrick was disappointing, especially considering his recent form. Anderson did raise the game but not by much, and Nani who should have started the match had no time to make an impact.
After the Ajax defeat, Ferguson’s mea culpa was astonishing, blaming the defeat on an inexperienced defence. Surely, if this is the same man that has won all those titles, he must have realized that the midfield was waaay more garbage than the defence? United’s back four on Thursday had an average age of 24.5 and among them, the worst player by far was a 30 year old left back, and the best was a 21 year old Spaniard who has already been written off in many quarters. So much for Ferguson’s inexperience theory.
If this United side are to progress to the quarter-finals, they need to score an unanswered two-goals at the bare minimum. Against an Athletic side who have lost just twice at home this season, roared on by a fervent home crowd numbering over 35,000 in the daunting bear pit that is the San Mames stadium. This might very well be United’s last chance at a trophy this season. Slip up again and they could very well end up trophy-less for the first time since the 2005-06 season. If they do lose, then the derby against City on April the 30th will attain unprecedented importance. And based on this performance, you’re better off wagering on the Sky Blues.
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