Date:16th March 2012 at 1:18am
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Crashed out of Europe

Having returned to the top of the Premier League for the first time since October, after defeating West Brom and Manchester City’s shock loss to Swansea, it was time for Manchester United to return to European competition and attempt to reverse a 3-2 aggregate scoreline that required them to score 2 goals to have any hope of progression to the next round. Indeed, the week before, United had been thoroughly outplayed on home soil, an example of their continued struggles at home in Europe this season and will have been aware that a much improved performance would be required to overturn the deficit and defeat an impressive Bilbao side. Fans that did not look upon the tie optimistically would likely have preferred that if the game were to look out of reach at any point, then they would hope players would be taken off and rest to prioritise for the League matches that await.

Sir Alex Ferguson named a different side to the one that got beaten at Old Trafford, with David De Gea starting with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans pairing up in front of him. At right back was Rafael Da Silva with Patrice Evra on the left. Ferguson opted for a five man midfield, occupied by Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park, Tom Cleverley and Ashley Young. Wayne Rooney spearheaded the attack as a lone striker.

United initially made a bright start, looking to get forward early and provide a means to which Rooney could be used to create attacking opportunities. However, it did not take long for the home side to settle into the game, backedĀ  by their vocal support they soon found their foot and began to assert their control on proceedings. With less than a quarter of an hour on the clock, and Bilbao hit the post, as Munain’s fires off the woodwork with De Marcos spurning the rebound with the goalmouth straight in front of him. An early let off for United but perhaps an ominous sign of things to come.

Less than 10 minutes later, and suddenly the danger signs became reality, as Iturraspe’s ball found it’s way over the top of the back line with ease, playing in Llorente, who volleyed first time to give his side a 1-0 lead, and a 4-2 aggregate advantage looking ever more unlikely to be overcome. United responded, getting close as Young played a ball in met by Giggs from close range only to be blocked. This set off a period of pressure from the visiting side as they searched out a goal to get them back in the tie, but failed to create anything truly clear cut, with Bilbao containing that particular period and refusing to allow United much room in which to play. And so it remained as half time was signalled, going in at 1-0.

The second half kicked off, and Bilbao immediately took control, preventing the visitors from so much as getting out of their own half. Getting forward and creating chances, it felt as if another goal was an inevitability, as Toquero, having replaced Llorente, blasted over from ten yards. As United continued to struggle, the clearest indication that the proverbial white flag was being waved, as players began to be spared for Sunday, with Carrick and Ferdinand coming off for Pogba and Smalling.

Minutes later, and Bilbao extend their lead through De Marcos, as the ball is worked into the box, with Smalling inadvertently involved in the move, playing in De Marcos who converted from close range. Ryan Giggs was brought off to a standing ovation by the home crowd, with Danny Welbeck replacing him. There was time for some late drama, or rather a spectacular consolation, as Wayne Rooney fired a rocket at goal from 25 yards, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance, but alas there was to be no late comeback, as the game was seen out at 2-1, giving Athletic Bilbao a thoroughly deserved 5-3 victory overall and saw them progress to the next round, with United having been knocked out from two European competitions in the same season.

On a bitterly disappointing night for fans, players and staff at Manchester United, here are five things that may be taken from the game.

1) Only one team deserved to go through, Athletic Bilbao

Although painfully obvious to anybody who even spent a couple of minutes watching the game, I still feel that I ought to begin with giving credit where it is due and taking the time to mention the superb efforts of Athletic Bilbao, both at Old Trafford and at home. Throughout the tie they played at a higher level than United, getting forward swiftly, able to unlock the back four and creating many goal scoring chances. For the second leg, they did not allow United to get forward easily, proving resolute in resisting any attempt to break down their back line and for much of the second half would make life difficult for Ferguson’s men to get out of their own half. Even though United played with an extra man in midfield, they simply could not gain control of the midfield in the way their hosts did as the Spanish side were able to keep hold of possession for much of the game, playing at a pace United struggled to keep up with.

2) Was a five man midfield really appropriate to chase a game?

Considering the results of United’s tactics when they hosted Bilbao at Old Trafford, it was probably initially understandable why Sir Alex Ferguson opted for a five man midfield. The logic was likely to crowd out a midfield that United had struggled to control the last time, in the hope they could also use the width to get forward and provide service for Wayne Rooney. However, some will argue that when a game is being chased, needing 2 goals at that, then this is not the way to set up and may not be aggressive enough. Regardless, these tactics did not seem to have much effect either way, as United struggled to get forward and perhaps did not play with the width that they would have wanted, with the main issue being the pace at which the hosts played and their ability to control possession in midfield, something that the five man set up failed to counteract.

3) The defence was challenged far more than a Premier League game

As mentioned earlier, it should be said that Athletic Bilbao played at such a pace and with a strong ability to maintain possession that they made life far more difficult for the defence than is often seen in a Premier League game. Some fans will point out that the back line has looked a liability at various points in the season anyway, and indeed there would be justification for this argument, but when introduced to the tempo at which this game was played, such issues become far more exposed. For example, Ferdinand’s drop in pace became exploited as the opposition were able to find ways through he struggled to keep up when pressured. The first goal was a particular example as to how it could be unlocked, with the ball over the top finding Llorente far too easily, who volleyed beautifully to open the scoring.

4) Ryan Giggs’ standing ovation, a mark of respect from a classy set of fans

When Ryan Giggs was indicated to come off and be replaced by Danny Welbeck, one aspect that many observed and promptly acknowledged as respectful, was the home fans providing the veteran Welshman with a standing ovation as he went off. It was a mark of the wide reaching respect that football fans in Europe as well as at home have for the midfielder, who put in a hard working shift for the side on a disappointing night. A fitting tribute to a world class footballer who has achieved so much at the club. The 40,000 fans certainly provided a raucous atmosphere in which to play, just as they had in the minority when they visited Old Trafford, backing their side vocally. It was not the only time they would show their approval of the opposition however, as they generously offered their applause when Rooney fired home a stunner from 25 yards as he grabbed a consolation.

5) A disastrous European campaign, focus turns to the league

In truth, it became obvious that Sir Alex Ferguson thought the game to be beyond his side by the hour mark, evidenced by his substitution of Carrick and Ferdinand to preserve them for Sunday. Some may have wondered whether the side he picked reflected his focus on the league, other strikers such as Berbatov, Welbeck and Hernandez not featuring in the starting line up. That said, it could hardly be said that any of the starting line up were fringe players and may will agree that the result was simply a culmination of what has been a mediocre showing in Europe at best and at worst nothing short of abysmal. Observers may agree this is likely to be a side in transition, with some in the side having the potential to form the foundations of a highly talented side in future, with the likes of Jones, Smalling, Pogba (assuming he stays), Welbeck, Cleverley, De Gea and the Da Silva twins all possessing great potential to develop further. It is hard to believe that some changes will not be made this Summer, as such under performance at this level will likely stimulate Ferguson into action in at least finding a useful addition to his side.

Now, though, focus turns to the league. With Manchester City also dropping out of the Europa League on Thursday night, both sides are left to scrap it out for the Premier League title as the season reaches with business end with 10 games to go. Let the mind games, twists and turns we have come to expect begin.