|photo by divinemisscopa||via PhotoRee|
Manchester United's European House of Horrors continued last night, with the not-so-mighty Reds conceding three road goals while losing to a younger, faster, and dare I say better Athletic Bilbao squad, a side that currently sits fourth in La Liga. If Bilbao is world famous for its modern art museum, many of United's players looked old enough to be exhibited in a similar environment on Thursday night. Losing a second straight home contest -- let me repeat that: Losing a second straight home contest -- in a cut-rate European competition can't feel very good for Sir Alex, and perhaps the only silver lining Red fans will come up with is that the team's focus must now be on Title number Twenty.
United will be fully up against it in the second leg of this tie, to be played in the Basque region of Spain in a week's time, needing at least a two goal win to advance. Based on last night's evidence, United has two shots at getting that result: slim and none. Herewith some brutal thoughts on an ugly evening in Manchester.
o Thank God for David De Gea, who was easily Man of the Match for the Reds -- and having surrendered three goals, that's saying quite a bit. DDG is the man for all those doubters. Let me remind you of what we said on this site before. Oh, and by the way: the guy is class.
o I hate to say this, because I love him, but Chicharito has been largely useless this season when not directly in front of goal. He's not big enough to play hold up man, a la Berbatov, and his touch is not good enough to dribble 20-30 yards with the ball, a la Rooney. When he's on his game, he's a definite fox in the box, one of the deadliest strikers in the world from six yards in or less, but if United don't get the ball in there he's basically just taking up space. On a positive note, the Mexican's timing seems to have returned, as he's not being flagged offside nearly as much as he was earlier in the season.
o We're grasping at straws here, but on the plus side of the strikers' ledger, Roo is hot right now, very hot, with seven goals in his last four games. Despite his generally abject performance yesterday, he still managed to find the net twice. He was at the right place at the right time last night for the first goal, but a betting man would have backed him to score regardless. His movement and instincts on the play were excellent, as he both started and finished the move, hanging just off the shoulder of the defense until they lost track of him, and onrushing the net like a bull in Pamplona to get to a spot where he could side foot it in.
o Against the run of play seems to be United's new motto. For the second straight game the Reds allowed the opposition to completely outplay them. United's new tactic appears to involve letting the other team play brilliantly for as long as they can, riding their luck the entire time, and then hit back just when the opposition is least expecting it. It worked for the first 44 minutes yesterday, but then we all witnessed what happens when your luck runs out.
o Give full credit to the visitors: Bilbao moved exactly like you would expect a youthful club to move. They showed tremendous fluency on the ball, were quicker to it in so many instances I lost count, displayed a nice variety of short, quick hitting passes and tons of pace -- oh, the pace. Those boys were fun to watch, and they completely and utterly outplayed our guys. There's no way to sugar coat it.
o Fernando Llorente's equalizer just short of halftime was nothing less than Bilbao deserved. That's one La Liga player who's not your typical Spanish striker: the goal came off his head.
o It's hard to say anything about the first half other than it's typical of the Reds' play of late: United seem to have swapped last season's away form for this season's European form. Lacking the calming influence of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, the United midfield once again looked undisciplined and all over the place.
o If it wasn't for De Gea, Bilbao would have poured in about six or seven goals on the night. The wiry Spaniard used all of his 76 inches to deny the Basques on multiple occasions, almost single-handedly keeping his club in the tie -- to the extent they are still in it. If Sir Alex wanted his men to throw the game and lessen the distractions this season, he forgot to tell Big Dave.
o Am I being too harsh in comparing Ashley Young to Theo Walcott? The guy is brilliant at times (see Ashley Young vs. Spurs, 2nd half) and invisible at others (See Ashley Young yesterday, vs. Bilbao). He's very frustrating to watch (or not, as the case may be), because you never know which version of Ashley is going to turn up on any given day.
o Athletic's second goal was no less deserved, with a scoop pass worthy of Scholes or Berbatov. The Spaniards were good value for their money, which got me to thinking: how much money could United get if they sold Rafael...? If sold as a statue they could demand a premium, because he did a damn good imitation of one as Bilbao's Iker Muniain dashed right by the Brazilian right back to score Athletic's third goal on the night.
o There was a refereeing controversy over a lost shoe, and a Rooney PK in the dying minutes that brought us the final 3-2 scoreline, but suffice it to say this: My notes just got angrier and more disturbed after Bilbao's third goal, so I'll just leave it at that for the night.
This is farlieonfootie for March 9.