Some might say that the last time Manchester United were well and truly outclassed was by City in that horrendous derby massacre. Marco Bielsa (and many many others) would beg to disagree after his young Athletic side tore apart the English Champions at their once-upon-a-time fortress of Old Trafford. The result leaves United with a helluva lot of work to do if they are to progress into the Quarter Finals of a competition usually referred to as “Thursday Nights on Channel 5.”
In a nutshell, United have been utterly poor in Europe this season, despite the fact that their European slump coincides with one of their most successful winning runs in the Premier League. Some seriously slack defending combined with mediocre midfielders and one-dimensional wing-play have seen them outclassed by relative European minnows such as Basel and Benfica and most recently Bilbao, who earned a stunning and well-deserved win away from home last week. The final scoreline at 3-2 flattered United because in truth, only David de Gea stood between Bilbao and a total United collapse. The result means that United need to score a bare minimum of 2 goals unanswered at the bear pit that is the San Mames stadium, home of Athletic Bilbao.
And Bilbao’s home form this season does not bode well for United. Of the 13 games they’ve played at home, they have lost only 2 of them, scoring exactly 2 goals per match on average. Further, they have lost only one game all season by more than 1 goal : a 4-1 drubbing away to Real Madrid. They are also yet to lose at home in the Europa League this season - Daunting stats, especially when you compare that with United’s own pathetic record - In the Champions League, United played six games and won exactly 2, both of which were laboured wins against previously unheard of/still probably unheard of Romanian minnow Otelul Galati. So far in the Europa league, United have conceded an astonishing 5 goals in 3 matches and both of their losses have come at home, not away.
The result leaves United with a helluva lot of work to do if they are to progress into the Quarter Finals of a competition usually referred to as “Thursday Nights on Channel 5.”
It is this alarming dip in home form that helped Bielsa’s Athletic to trample over United. Quick passing, direct attacks and a superhuman willingness to chase down every single United player gave the man they call El Loco the result he craved. Athletic’s 4-3-3 often reverted to an unorthodox 4-2-4 at times, with Fernando Llorente, Susaeta, De Marcos and the excellent Iker Muniain all encroached inside United’s own half. The statistics at the end of the match amply justified the end result - at their home, United had been reduced to the counter-attacking team with just over 40% of the total possession. United had also conceded 14 shots on David de Gea’s goal - one of the largest proportions they have allowed in recent years. Reading the BBC’s live commentary for that match is an exercise in laughter for most non-United fans, since the term “save by David de Gea” appears more times (10) than “shot on target by Manchester United player” (6).
Bearing this in mind, Ferguson is expected to send out a strong team on Thursday night as United bid to become the fourth side after Ajax, Juventus and Bayern Munich to win all three major European Competitions. For starters, he will definitely start with at least 3 centre midfielders to combat Bilbao’s dynamic middle three. Since Anderson is possibly out for the season (again), Tom Cleverley could very well start with either Scholes or Carrick. Nani hasn’t travelled to Spain, which means Antonio Valencia should make his much awaited return since that injury against Arsenal. United have missed Valencia’s pace and direct running already, as Nani is struggling with form, Young is playing on the left, and Park is being crap. Ferguson will also have noticed Bilbao’s full backs’ tendency to push up the field, which often left spaces for United’s wingers to break into.
Reading the BBC’s live commentary for that match is an exercise in laughter for most non-United fans, since the term “save by David de Gea” appears more times (10) than “shot on target by Manchester United player” (6).
More than anything, Ferguson will realize that his players will have to match the incredible work-rate that Athletic showed in the first leg. And they will have to cut out the sloppy passing that often gifted the ball back to their opponents. Athletic could very well be wary of United’s response to their home defeat. However, much of that depends on how Ferguson views this competition - as a genuinely demanding challenge? Or as a cup for a bunch of has-been-won’t-be’s? If its the latter, then it begs the question as to why United are there in the first place.
As Pablo Picasso once said, “To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow means the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.” If Athletic strike first, it could end easily end up as the coup de grâce for Ferguson’s latest Fledglings.
Predicted Score :
Athletic Bilbao 1 - 1 Manchester United (Bilbao 4 - 3 United on aggregate)
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