There are many sights which football fans rarely see in the game they love. We rarely see managers fall over, like the hilarious Roberto Di Matteo slip in Chelsea’s win over Napoli. Even rarer is the sight of Alan Shearer on MOTD (you know, the mannequin that thinks it’s a human) giving an insightful, fresh or salient point while reclining on the couch with the hush-toned Gary Lineker. Rarer still, and you know where I’m going with this, is Manchester United being as comprehensively and easily outplayed as they were on Thursday night. Barcelona did it, City achieved it. Add Bilbao to that list. In the first leg at Old Trafford, Athletic Bilbao stormed Manchester and retreated to the second leg with 3 well-deserved, brilliantly executed away goals, to United’s home tally of two. They earned that result. Just like yesterday.
They were brilliant; they were tough; they were assertive. In truth, Bilbao were everything United were not. At times the Spanish side even resembled the Barcelona team which so harmfully swatted away United in the Champions League final of 2011. Tenacious off the ball, enthralling on it. United were stormed and swarmed by waves of relentlessly fit and hard-working men in striped colours; every pass that was made was cut out and every moment in possession was either broken apart by the opposition or a mistake was forced. A Giggs header that was deflected for a corner, an early opening for Rooney who crossed instead of shooting and his eventual strike in the top corner of the Athletic Bilbao net were the only real chances United could muster.
And this is all compounded by the fact that Bilbao are lounging around in seventh in the Spanish league. One wonders; what on earth would Barcelona do to this current United crop in Europe, a year on from the final of 2011? What would Napoli do, or Real Madrid, or even Bayern Munich? In truth, while the transition Chelsea are undergoing has been largely reported all season long, Ferguson’s men are going through a smaller one of their own. Players like Welbeck and the previously injured Cleverley, along with the improved Jonny Evans and Phil Jones are young and learning, as is the mountainous Paul Pogba who celebrated his 19th Birthday and one suspects will soon become more acquainted with the side.
But the deficiencies were still there to see. It’s all well and good being top of the domestic league but in Europe this season, United have failed and been taught many a harsh lesson due to underrating the opposition and making costly mistakes. In 10 European matches United have won 3 and been made to look like delirious chumps on more occasions than United fans will want to remember. That’s 3 triumphs from 10 in what was considered an ‘easy’ Champions League group, along with the much-derided baby sister competition – the Europa League. United fans and Fergie do not need telling that it’s not good enough, mainly because it has been a recurring fault in United’s season.
Where to as far as Europe is concerned after this latest embarrassing defeat at the hands of Spaniards? So meek in possession; so susceptible to fluid, flowing passing. The same old weaknesses exploited again and the same old faults used against them with ease by a Spanish side that before the Old Trafford first leg were naively underrated by a few members of the red-faced English press (just like Italian teams).
Optimists – or realists – will wave off the Europa League defeat. Sorry, but we all know it’s more than that. It’s another lesson, like the second leg of the Ajax game, that a fresh layer of paint is needed – along with some serious lessons learnt – if Ferguson is going to rise to the top of the European tree once again. In his time at Old Trafford the purple nosed Magician has won two Champions League trophies, and lost two finals. Quite honestly, the Scotsman has always claimed one of his biggest disappointments was not winning more. And if Athletic Bilbao make United look like a portly schoolchild grasping for a handful of honey while a raging swarm of bees bite chunks out of his cheeks, then Ferguson may just continue to be disappointed. Obviously with United, the ‘never give up’ mantra will never die. But that mantra is in stark opposition to the more forceful lack of quality and European savvy that has undone their squad in continental competition this season.
Youthful, vibrant sides are learning. United are staying still. I recall making this point before, but Ferguson is 70. He will be 71 before another bite at the cherry presents itself. Time is on the wane.
As for Bilbao and their gorgeous combination of work ethic and technical ability, well they go through as the darlings of the Europa League and the team that gently tug on all the heartstrings of the football loving neutral. For United, it’s another harsh lesson in European football served up by a strikingly superior side. A re-think is needed if the red side of Manchester are to compound domestic success with the more desired ‘Old Big Ears’ – the dreamy Champions League trophy – once more in the future.