Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Manchester United: Ferguson backs young Leones for Europa League
La Liga’s Athletic Club of Bilbao out-ran and then out-classed Manchester United to beat the Premier League leaders 2-1 on the night and progress to the Europa League quarter-finals 5-3 on aggregate.
A goal in each half from Fernando Llorente and Óscar de Marcos put the tie well out of United’s reach, before Wayne Rooney fired in a late consolation for the well beaten visitors.
Bilbao’s old San Mamés stadium was rocking by the end of what will be remembered as one of the great nights in Athletic’s history, and afterwards the club’s Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, in his own way, spoke of how impressive the occasion had been.
“Such a spectacle on the pitch, between the two good rivals, with the public enjoying themselves so much, it all came together,” said Bielsa. “We are all very happy and there is a lot of joy among the players. That is justified as it is based on playing a very complete game."
United boss Alex Ferguson admitted that his team had been well beaten, and made a point of commending the hard work and energy of the Athletic players, saying he hoped they would go on to win the competition. “I want to wish them well and hope they do win it, as it would be a testimony to the hard work they put in and the coaching they receive,” said Ferguson. “They have created a cause and it is wonderful to see a team with such determination and energy. They deserve to win it (the Europa League).”
Before the game Ferguson had showed his wariness of Athletic’s energetic central players by selecting an extra midfielder in Tom Cleverley, leaving Wayne Rooney as a lone frontman. Bielsa risked his marquee forward Llorente despite the Spanish international's ongoing hip injury.
Even with a 3-2 lead from last week’s first leg there were some nerves inside the stadium. These were almost settled early on when Llorente’s clever ball gave Iker Muniain room to shoot from the edge of the area - the shot hit the post but fell perfectly for De Marcos but he snatched at his volley with the goal gaping.
The expectant crowd had to wait and they were rewarded when Llorente judged a long ball from the back much better than Rio Ferdinand and volleyed the dropping ball perfectly across David de Gea to the net. Athletic’s players now also settled down and United’s midfield and defence struggled to live with their energy, movement and technique.
The wave of home attacks intensified after half-time and De Marcos, Markel Susaeta and Ander Herrera missed presentable chances to double the lead. Right-back Andoni Iraola came closest when he waltzed past three United defenders only to pull his shot just wide to gasps and then smiles from the stands.
When the second did come it was fitting that De Marcos - who had struggled all week with the flu - was the man to get it, with the all action midfielder volleying in after substitute Gaizka Toquero had challenged for an Iraola cross.
Rooney was the one United player to impress – trying to pull his lethargic team-mates forward, but he was getting little change out of Athletic’s excellent centre-half pairing of Fernando Amorebieta and Javi Martínez. One firm tackle from Amorebieta had the England international looking particularly frustrated.
The ex-Everton man got at least some of that out of his system by firing a superb 25 yard shot to the top corner - bringing some consolation for the travelling United support, and an ovation from the Basque crowd, who also showed their appreciation of English football by clapping Ryan Giggs from the pitch when the veteran midfielder was substituted late on.
The night was one for the home players and fans to share though - and the final whistle brought more wild celebrations on and off the pitch. It is not just Ferguson who feels this young Athletic side will go far.