After a crucial 3-1 victory away to Spurs at the weekend, United looked to transfer their good league form into Europe, with the visit of Athletic Club to Old Trafford in the first knockout round of the Europa League. Having scraped past Ajax in the previous round, and largely struggling at home in Europe all season, the reds would need to be on top form in order to overcome an Athletic side sitting 5th in La Liga under the tutelage of new manager Marcelo Bielsa, and with star men such as Fernando Llorente and Iker Munain leading their charge up the table. For United, a strong side containing Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, and Jonny Evans were charged with ensuring a solid start ahead of the second leg in Bilbao in a weeks time.
Hopes that United would return to their former dominant selves in Europe were quickly banished by a frenetic opening to the game, with Bilbao controlling the ball, and looking dangerous, but vulnerable to the penetrating United counter attacks. Llorente’s fantastic hold up play allowed the Spanish international to turn and fire off a right footed shot narrowly wide, the first in a long line of warning’s for the United keeper David De Gea. The visitors were aggrieved to not be awarded a penalty, as Chris Smalling appeared to haul Llorente to the ground, the referee waved away protests, and United capitalised, as minutes later, Javier Hernandez’s left footed shot was parried out to the onrushing Rooney who slotted United into a somewhat undeserved lead.
Despite going behind, the visitors, roared on by their 8000 strong and very vocal support, continued to control the game, attacking with great dynamism and skill. They should have been level on the half hour mark, as midfielder Susaeta latched onto a ball over the top, but sent his lob inches wide of the United goal. An inevitable equaliser was soon to follow however, as on the brink of half time, as the superb Llorente was quickest to react to Susaeta’s cross, and nod Athletic level whilst also handing them a priceless away goal.
Half time allowed United to draw breath from a pulsating first half, but once again they quickly found themselves on the back foot against a sea of Athletic attacks, as the visitors continued to thrive upon the challenge. United were eternally grateful to De Gea for keeping the scoreline respectable in an extraordinary 10 minute spell following the restart, which saw the Spaniard deny Athletic 4 times in quick succession, with a string of world class saves. There was little he could have done however, when on 72 minutes, a delightful passing exchange on the edge of the United box saw De Marcos break clear and slot home with a first time shot giving Athletic an aggregate lead and leaving the reds with a huge mountain to climb.
The introduction of Nani and Michael Carrick stemmed the tide of the game, as United began to search for an equaliser which would give them a realistic chance of qualifying in Bilbao a weeks time. A stinging Rooney drive from 30 yards was well held by keeper Iraizoz, and a spell of pressure on the Athletic goal required some timely interventions from reported United target Javi Martinez. With time elapsing, and United pressing, disaster struck, as a seemingly innocuous long ball fell to De Marcos, whose first time shot was well saved by De Gea, only to fall to Munain who slotted home and seemingly ended United’s hopes in Europe for another season. In a game of twists and turns however, there was to be a reprieve for the reds, as with only 2 minutes remaining, De Marcos inexplicably handled in the area awarding United a penalty, which was confidently dispatched by Rooney. The night belonged to Athletic however, and left Ferguson much to ponder ahead of next weeks crunch clash in Spain.
DDG – 8 MOTM Kept United in the game.
Rafael – 6 Fell asleep for third goal after what was a good performance.
Smalling – 5 Came off injured after being terrorised by Llorente.
Evans – 6 Some crucial interventions.
Evra – 5 Defensively all over the place.
Young – 6 United’s greatest attacking force.
Jones – 5 Failed to protect the back four.
Giggs – 5 Sloppy in possession.
Park – 3 General play abysmal.
Rooney – 6 Despite brace, not his best performance.
Hernandez – 4 Much to learn.
Nani – 6 Looked dangerous in final stages.
Carrick – 6 Stemmed the tide of the game.
Anderson – 5 No contribution.