They came, they saw and they conquered. Old Trafford -the fortress that used to be – was left in tatters and is perhaps still shaking by the blitz by Bielsa’s boys. On paper, United held the edge with their vast European experience and know-how in getting the job done, yet on the pitch Bilbao were on a different level.
There were signs in all of United’s previous European adventures this season and something didn’t seem right on Thursday night as well. Los Leones confirmed all the apprehensions of the fans as they left Old Trafford supporters dumbfounded and wide-eyed in utter disbelief.
At the end of the full ninety minutes, the team assembled under less than Wayne Rooney’s transfer fee and entirely from the Basque region in Spain had not only beaten the Red Devils in their own backyard but possibly given them a lesson in attacking football.
Teams more often than not come to the Theatre of Dreams happy to sit at the back and hit on the counter. But not Biesla’s young guns, as they owned OT for the duration of the game as the Spanish side played with no fear of the occasion or the opposition.
In the end the travelling 8000 odd strong Bilbao contingent celebrated a famous win with their heroes and there was hardly any Mancunian in the stands who would have begrudged Atheltic Bilbao their moment of glory. Bilbao fans too won their duel against their United counterparts as they rocked Old Trafford all night long and completely out sang the shell-shocked United support.
Ferguson’s team selection would perhaps come under the scanner as would the performances of the young Phil Jones and Rafael Da Silva but to be fair, credit must be given to the opposition whose relentless pressing and unparalleled commitment cornered United into submission. It’s hardly a secret that of late Fergie’s team has struggled against opposition who don’t allow United players with time on the ball, ergo Biesla’s high pressing Atheltic side were always going to prove United’s kryptonite and so it proved.
The absence of Michael Carrick was perhaps the one selection that Ferguson would come to rue as the player’s ball retaining skills and ability to shield the back four were badly missed. Rio Ferdinand was another big name absentee in the lineup but it was midfield were the battle was lost yet again. The central midfield pairing of Jones and Giggs was over run and cut through time and again like the proverbial knife through butter.
Sir Alex had over the last few years stuck rigidly to the more balanced 4-5-1 but curiously shunned it this season and the results have proved disastrous. Was it just an error in formation, personnel or a combination of both? Perhaps it was more than just that. Fergie’s side was up against an inspired opposition brimming with confidence, playing with unspeakable passion and giving it their absolute all in an attempt towards creating history.
Bilbao showcased that United can be got at, and heavily exposed some of the chinks in their armor. Iker Muniain ran the United full backs ragged and if there was ever any doubt about the teenager’s pedigree, well, there is none now. Europe would have taken notice as Muniain star is well on the rise come the summer transfer window. Javi Martinez, Herrera and Llorente all displayed maturity beyond their years and made their more illustrious opponents look rather ordinary.
Quite clearly the tie meant more to the Spanish side, on the other hand United still look to come to terms with their priorities, shuffling focus between Premier league and the Europa League encounters. Maybe their attitude let them down, and as things stand perhaps going out of the competition will save the Old Trafford club of the juggling act and concentrate on the league, which clearly everyone at the club values a lot more.
Not all was gloomy though on the night when the Spanish side outclassed United, as their very own Spaniard treated every critic on the British Isle with a dose of that humble pie. David De Gea is the sole reason why Ferguson was able to declare the tie still recoverable. The Spaniard produced at least three top drawer saves befitting of the occasion and the quality of the game. De Gea’s brilliance has given United some semblance of hope on a night went the final score line of 3-2 must feel like the very least Bilbao deserved.
In less than a week, United visit Bilbao and the Cathedral will be ready. Eight thousand odd Bilbao fans created an atmosphere to savor at Old Trafford. Hence, it is safe to assume United can expect a cacophony of noise so overbearing so as to transport two oceans and several seas. With United one couldn’t or perhaps shouldn’t rule out a backlash, but the overwhelming evidence of the first leg points to the contrary.
Marcelo Bielsa promised a fiesta of football and the game more than lived up to its billing. With United needing a victory by two goals or more and Bielsa’s side always intent on scoring the second leg promises to be another carnival of mesmerizing football.
United fans would hope their side turns up in Spain and gives it a real go. This club takes great pride in its fighting qualities and the ability to come back from the brink. Atheltic club Bilbao not only won the first round but surely many opposition hearts as well. The style of play was a breath of fresh air and well received by the United manager as well as the fans. It is time for Man United to return the favor or perhaps end this agonizing European campaign once and for all.