In his pre-match press conference, Sir Alex Ferguson called for his players to wake up in Europe at Old Trafford. His comments weren’t heeded as we slumped to yet another defeat at home in Europe. That’s 1 win in 5 home European ties now. Manchester United were well and truly beaten by Athletic Club Bilbao and the score-line is flattering to the Red Devils as they were convincingly played off the park by the Spanish team. There would have been no injustice at all if the Red Devils were beaten by more than a 1 goal margin.
Indeed the score-line could have been bigger had it not been for the heroics of our very own Spanish goalkeeper, David De Gea who did his best to keep the score-line down and thwart his countrymen. This defeat also means that in 42 matches against Spanish teams, United have only won 12 and lost 14. I knew United didn’t do too well against Spanish teams and thus I was cautious ahead of this game on how United would do. Admittedly, Bilbao were relatively unknown to me as I don’t follow Spanish football closely but I do know that they have a very good record at home and a very good manager in Marcelo Bielsa at its helm. I expected the possession-based football that Spanish teams are famed for, the tiki-taka, short passing game. I knew as well that among all the Spanish teams, they were quite “English” in their approach as they can mix it up by playing long, direct balls as well. Everything was on show in the entire game. Bilbao gave a good account of themselves and earned themselves a lot of praise from the media worldwide for their style of football, who perhaps like the rest of us have sat up and take notice of the club now.
Manchester United, our beloved Red Devils with a worldwide fan following, were the big name team in the tie. They were playing at home but it was made to feel otherwise as the numerically inferior Bilbao supporters out-sang their United counterparts in the stands just as their players out-played their hosts on the field. It is also disappointing to see the home crowd as subdued as that; perhaps expecting United to just step on to the field and collect the win on a canter. The atmosphere which we normally associate Old Trafford to European nights was missing perhaps a lack of respect for the opponents from the fans, ignorant to teams outside of England. Mind you, we are talking about a team from the La Liga which is arguably the best league in Europe at the moment in terms of quality, a league that boasts arguably two of the best teams in Europe now, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Second placed Barcelona would be top in any other league in Europe now. Bilbao are in fifth place albeit within range for a place in the Champions League and don’t have a name as big as Real Madrid and Barcelona but that doesn’t mean they deserve to be disrespected. That doesn’t mean we don’t give them an intimidating atmosphere to play in and test the temperament of the team. Instead we made it easy for them and made them feel at home.
Bilbao had a youthful team and who knows how much of a difference the 12th man would have made had they made themselves heard throughout. How much of a boost it would have given the United players hearing the fans getting behind the team. United matched the youth of Bilbao with our own and we came unstuck much in the same way we came unstuck against two other youthful sides; FC Basle and Ajax Amsterdam. We had more experience but it was of no use as the Spanish side played with supreme confidence in their own abilities and made us chase shadows around them. Credit to them as well for showing character to bounce back from going, undeservedly, one goal behind to eventually take a 3-1 lead. Everywhere now you will read, watch and hear about the media singing high praises of the Spanish side and they deserve every bit of it.
Even the most die-hard of United fans would have to admit that we didn’t deserve to win and were out-played. It is disappointing because we expect so much more and so much better from the team in terms of performances and results. Our results in Europe especially have been appalling. We have made it to the last 3 out of 4 Champions League finals but our performances this season have not been good at all. We have not looked solid defensively, we have been complacent and we have got our tactics wrong. On the evidence of the performance last night, I’d rather we have got knocked out of Europe completely. At least we can save our energy and resources and focused on retaining our Premier League title. There has been no difference at all from the side that was humiliated by being knocked out of a group that we were expected to go through from, to what we see now. The players don’t seem to have learned anything. One argument put forward by a fellow fan was that perhaps the fault lies in the backroom staff namely Mike Phelan and that he is not good enough to be an assistant to Sir Alex at this level. What worries me is that all throughout this season, our performances have been inconsistent. We go on a good run of results and performances and then we suddenly hit poor form and lose a game or two before picking up again. Normally, after a blip, United go from strength to strength and move up the gears to get stronger and play better. An occasional blip is acceptable but the players don’t seem to heed the warning signs especially of complacency in their play and switching off completely. Is Sir Alex’s hairdryer working? Or has it lost its power?
It might sound ridiculous to question to manager who has brought us so much joy and pleasure in the past but the fact remains that normally, we respond very well to A blip. We normally only have ONE blip. We don’t have many blips in a season. Our last two Premier League performances have been anything but great but we squeezed out wins in both games, always a sign of a champion team, to be able to squeeze out wins even when not playing well but we cannot go on any longer just looking to squeeze out wins without playing well. Yesterday we came up against a very good side and they took us apart, we are lucky that we didn’t get our second trashing at home this season. Honestly, if we carry on this way at this, the most crucial part of the season, we will be left empty-handed. At the other part of the city, Manchester City have made the Etihad Stadium a fortress. They hardly ever lose or drop points there, making it a formidable place to visit. We can go there and win, I have no doubts about it but before we play them are we going to attempt to sleepwalk our way through our matches? There are good teams in England that can punish us as well if we attempted to do that.
In Europe, are the players and the club really interested in playing in the Europa League? All throughout the game, the Spanish side look the hungrier of the two as they worked hard to close us down whenever we had the ball. We didn’t keep good possession when we had it and we hardly created any clearcut chances. Once again our lack of creativity was a telling factor in Europe. Once again we could only look on in amazement as we see a young opposition creative midfielder/attacker pull the strings and torment us. For all our experience, we couldn’t get to grips with him. Against Basle it was Xherdan Shaqiri and against Bilbao it was Iker Muniain. Who’s in our central midfield? Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs. The latter was our best outfield player but he did so much of running that he was visibly tired when he was taken off as he was swarmed by the younger legs around him. The former, also a youngster of the same age category as the Spanish, was out played. His all-action style was not to be seen as he didn’t put himself about effectively. He couldn’t keep possession quite as well too. We might have our very own Tom Cleverley but he has been ravaged by injury this season. Paul Scholes, a master at passing was probably rested after a poor showing against Tottenham and at the age he is at, we need to use him wisely. Anderson, another who like Cleverley had a great start to the season, has been ravaged by injury. He came on but his rustiness showed.
The biggest disappointment was Wayne Rooney. He scored twice to give us a lifeline going into the return clash at San Mames in a week’s time but he was guilty of not exerting control on the match and of wasting possession on many counts. This is a player who is world famous and the biggest name on the field inspite of the presence of some world champions in the opposition ranks. We would expect him to stand up and be counted, show us why he is so highly rated but instead he showed his England form and why people think he is overrated. It is not unbecoming of the one true star quality player that we have to not influence a game the way Messi does at Barcelona or Ronaldo did when he was with United and the way he does it now for Real Madrid. Sir Alex spoke post-match about defending better and some of the defending was lamentable. Once again without the presence of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, our defence is shaky in Europe. It can be attributed to lack of experience but it’s no excuse as we came up against a team that was of around the same age as most of the United players. The only experienced member of the defence was the Frenchman Patrice Evra but this season his defending has not been of the quality we expect from him and perhaps needs better competition at the left back berth for him to start producing the goods once again. It can also be argued that at 31, perhaps his star is waning too. One positive would have to be the performance of De Gea who is evidently growing in stature, influence and confidence as each game goes by. United have allowed their opponents chances and in recent weeks the Spaniard has done spectacularly well to keep us in the game and help us win matches. This is what we expect from our goalkeepers and what we got from Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar previously. It is still early days yet so let’s hope he can carry this forward for longer.
Next assignment for United would the visit of West Bromwich Albion starting a run of supposed easier matches having navigated through a tough run of fixtures. The performances have got to improve and there has to be greater consistency and confidence in them. No way are we going to win anything if we carry on playing poorly and allowing opponents to play their game. No way! As for the fans, please start being more vocal instead of sitting quietly expecting a win from every match. Fans from all over the world support United and religiously watch their matches at whatever time it is on wherever they are. Everyone of us can’t be there but the least we expect is that those that are there play their part to drive the team on and intimidate the opposition. The players got to wake up as well. Period. Can we win our tie against Bilbao? We can hope, we will support and pray but the real Manchester United got to stand up if we are to have any chance.