By Greg Stobart at Old Trafford
Sir Alex Ferguson could not have helped but envy the team in green at Old Trafford on Thursday night.
Athletic Bilbao outpassed and outplayed Manchester United to win 3-2 at Old Trafford and leave Ferguson’s side facing an uphill battle to stay in the Europa League this season. So much for this being a second-rate competition.
The 7,000 Basque fans twirled their scarves in the air and boomed their support for their side as Athletic - 30 points behind leaders Real Madrid in La Liga - dominated the game with speed and movement.
Athletic had 23 shots on goal and were it not for the wonderful David de Gea in the United goal, who pulled off some stunning saves in the second half, Marcelo Bielsa’s side would have been out of sight ahead of the second leg at the San Mames next week.
|A TEAM TRANSFORMED
|By Spanish correspondent Ben Hayward:
Marcelo Bielsa has revolutionised Athletic since taking over in the summer, completely changing the philosophy of a side previously characterised for their direct, long-ball style, famed for their bombardment of crosses into the box.
All that's left now from the side coached - efficiently, but unspectacularly - by Joaquin Caparros side is their high-tempo pressing game.
Many Athletic fans had believed that, given the quality of players in their squad, the team could aspire to more and Bielsa has proved them correct.
Although restricted by their Basque-only signing policy, Athletic have quality all over the pitch - and that showed at Old Trafford. Iker Muniain was the star of the show with the third goal and a high-energy display, but there were heroes wherever you looked. Javi Martinez slotted in seamlessly at the back, while Ander Herrera's superb scooped pass set up Oscar de Marcos for the second goal and Fernando Llorente scored the first.
However, it was the nature of the performance that impressed more than the personnel on show. Athletic pinged passes around the pitch, dominating possession. It was almost like watching Barcelona.
Rooney's late penalty means the tie remains in the balance, but Bielsa's side are on the verge of taking another vital step towards Europe's elite and in the absorbing atmosphere of San Mames next Thursday, a draw will see Athletic advance.
On the evidence of this first match at least, nobody can say they don't deserve it.
The third Bilbao goal summed it up. While the home players were moaning about Patrice Evra losing a boot, the Spanish side swept to the other end of the pitch. Rafael completely failed to react to the loose ball and Iker Muniain showed sharpness and desire to get to the ball and fire it into the roof of the net.
United lost all their individual battles. Phil Jones could not get near the ball, Chris Smalling was bullied by Fernando Llorente and Rafael was tormented by Muniain. They were lazy, lacking concentration and desire against a side they would have expected to beat comfortably.
It has been something of a theme this season - a concerning one.
United have won just one of five European games at Old Trafford this season and fell to their second defeat in a row as Bilbao’s technically excellent players took advantage of some astonishing naivety.
Athletic were able to completely control the midfield as they outnumbered Ferguson’s side while the United defence lacked any sort of cohesion, badly missing the experience and nous of Rio Ferdinand to calm things down as the visitors drove forward.
But United have been sloppy in Europe this season. It resulted in an early exit from the Champions League and, unless there is a vast improvement, they can expect to be free on Thursday nights for the rest of the season.
That the English champions should fail to beat Basel, Benfica, Ajax and now Bilbao reflects badly on the quality of the Premier League. There is a real chance that the self-styled best league in the world will have no clubs in the quarter-finals of any European competition this season.
While United’s failure to progress from a seemingly easy Champions League group was put down to complacency, it was also the product of poor passing and careless defending.
A year ago, United would have been considered a formidable opponent at Old Trafford in European competition, but they have continually allowed opposing teams to pass them off the pitch this season, conceding several goalscoring chances.
None did it better than Thursday's Basque opponents, who controlled the game for the vast majority of the 90 minutes.
Wayne Rooney scored twice, the first and last goals of the night, to give United a glimmer of hope that they don’t deserve.
But if they don’t raise their game significantly, United are heading for another early European exit that they fully deserve.