Brilliant Bilbao stun United
Manchester United's Europa League challenge is hanging by a thread after Athletic Bilbao outclassed their opponents to claim a 3-2 victory.
Last Updated: 08/03/12 10:25pm
Manchester United's Europa League challenge is hanging by a thread after Athletic Bilbao outclassed their opponents to claim a 3-2 victory in the first leg at Old Trafford.
Bilbao produced a sumptuous performance in the first instalment of the last-16 tie to leave United wondering how they will head to San Mames next week trailing by only one goal.
Wayne Rooney had given the hosts a first-half lead before converting an injury-time penalty to give the Premier League title contenders a glimmer of hope going into the return meeting.
United took the lead midway through the first half when Rooney pounced on the loose ball from close range after Bilbao keeper Gorka Iraizoz could only push out Javier Hernandez's shot.
However, the visitors were a constant threat and, after Markel Susaeta had lifted a good opportunity wide, Fernando Llorente deservedly headed Bilbao level just before half-time.
Bilbao, who sit fifth in La Liga, were even more dominant after the break and United were indebted to David de Gea as the Spanish keeper twice denied Iker Muniain either side of a brilliant stop from Llorente's curling effort.
The Red Devils' flimsy defence, though, was eventually made to pay on 72 minutes when a wonderfully crafted move was finished by a crisp volley from Oscar De Marcos despite a suspicion of offside.
De Marcos was then involved in two late goals as first, his volley was pushed out by De Gea for Muniain to crash home before his handball then gave Rooney the chance to pull a goal back from the penalty spot in stoppage-time.
A noisy travelling support of around 7,000 ensured the visitors' minds were focused despite the twin attractions of competing for a place in next season's Champions League and a forthcoming Copa del Rey final showdown with Barcelona.
Llorente quickly established himself as Athletic's danger man, his muscular frame providing a battering ram of a problem for United's defence.
Twice the burly front-man went close in the opening stages, nodding over before curling a shot just wide.
Susaeta impressed in support and he came close to providing a magnificent riposte to Rooney's opener when he outpaced Jonny Evans to reach Javi Martinez's lofted pass, lobbing De Gea with a first-time effort which bounced narrowly wide.
No-one could begrudge Athletic their equaliser when it arrived two minutes before the break, although Sir Alex Ferguson would doubtless complain at the simplicity of it.
Llorente fed the ball out wide on the edge of the area, then spun and bulldozed his way to the six-yard box, where Susaeta's cross was perfectly timed.
It rather punctured the optimism Rooney had created with his clinical effort.
In truth, Ryan Giggs deserved some of the plaudits for his deft pass and Hernandez even more due to the Mexican's nimble feet, which took him past Martinez and allowed the shot that Iraizoz could only parry into Rooney's path.
It was a significant goal in the sense it took the striker level with Denis Law on 28 European goals, a tally that leaves him just one behind Giggs and 10 adrift of Ruud van Nistelrooy, United's top scorer in continental combat.
If United thought they had endured the best Athletic could do, they were mistaken.
From an acute angle, Muniain managed to fire through a crowd of bodies, forcing De Gea to repel at full stretch.
It was the start of an impressive stint of attacking play from Athletic.
Llorente blasted into the side-netting, then was denied by De Gea after escaping the rather lax attentions of Rafael.
Amid all this, the Red Devils lost Chris Smalling, whose head wound suffered on international duty last week reopened to leave blood running down the side of his head.
Ferguson had enough to worry about without having the substitutes' replacement board being dropped on him by assistant Rene Meulensteen.
Castigated a couple of months ago, De Gea impressed, denying Muniain again after Herrera had found him with a fabulous return pass.
Given how the game had gone, it would have been churlish to make too much of the fact Athletic's second goal should have been ruled out for offside.
United's defence was torn to shreds by some intricate one-touch passing that ended with Herrera lifting the ball up for De Marcos to run onto. In an instant, the ball was nestling in the net, and fully deserved it was too.
There was more late drama though as Rafael's shocking defending, after De Gea had saved another De Marcos shot, allowed Muniain to blast into an empty net.United were in deep trouble, only for Rooney to move level with Giggs and more importantly provide some hope with an injury-time penalty after De Marcos had handled.
|Manchester United||Team Statistics||Athletic de Bilbao|
|1||1st Half Goals||1|
|5||Shots on Target||11|
|4||Shots off Target||8|
|38.9||1st Half Poss.||61.1|
|45.9||2nd Half Poss.||54.1|