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Bilbao's class shatters United


Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney

Fernando Llorente celebrates with some of his Athletic Bilbao team-mates after scoring against Manchester United

Fernando Llorente celebrates with some of his Athletic Bilbao team-mates after scoring against Manchester United


Wayne Rooney

The Europa League was the competition Manchester United never really wanted to be in, but that does not mean anyone at Old Trafford will be happy they no longer are after this comprehensive defeat by Athletic Bilbao.

It may have been nothing more than a consolation prize, largely unappreciated compensation for an early Champions League exit, but nobody can seriously argue they did not want to win it.

For Bilbao, though, this competition has been a focal point of their campaign and it showed -- in Manchester and again last night as they tore into Alex Ferguson's side with speed and precision.

"The disappointment for me is losing such a soft goal," said Ferguson. "It was a bad one for an English team to lose a goal like that -- a long ball.

"At the start of the second half they could have scored two or three goals, they had us on the back foot for most of those first 20 minutes.

"I don't think we can complain about the result. I think that, in the second half in particular, Bilbao were the better team."

In it from the start, the Europa League was no unwanted distraction for Bilbao, a club which has forgotten what it feels like to challenge for their domestic title.

Outplayed at Old Trafford last week in a 3-2 defeat, United were once again given the run around by an impetuous Bilbao side, performances which suggests La Liga's dominance over the Premier League is increasing.

Bilbao are seventh in Spain's top division, 33 points adrift of Real Madrid, yet they have made the Premier League leaders look ordinary twice in the space of a week.

Such was the home side's dominance, particularly after Fernando Llorente had put them in front on the night with a superbly controlled volley, they cut through United like a cheese slicer going through soft blue cheese.

This was not a weakened United that was humbled in Basque country -- different to the one that will face Wolves on Sunday, perhaps, but not a makeshift one.

In their defence, United have bigger prizes to fight for and they will now focus all their energy to hold on to their Premier League crown, but the manner in which they have been kicked out of the Europa League has left bruised egos.

Ferguson had talked passionately about triumphing in adversity before the game, but Bilbao rarely gave them a glimmer of matching Chelsea's exploits against Napoli the previous night.

United's players had watched that game in their hotel rooms, but if it inspired them, it did not show and Bilbao had all but secured their passage into the quarter-final by half-time.

The arrival of such illustrious opponents had sent Spain's fifth largest city into a frenzy, with flags draped from balconies or flying outside bars and shops.

Manchester United may not have wanted to be here, but Bilbao was delighted to see them all the same.

Their fans expected them to complete the job and they were not disappointed, although it could have been a far more relaxing evening. Time and time again they cut United open, but could not find a finish to match the brilliance of their approach play.

Bilbao threw themselves at a creaky defence, the high-tempo game that had shocked them last week doing almost as much damage despite being better prepared for it.

A loose early pass from Rio Ferdinand caused Michael Carrick to bring down Ander Herrera close to the edge of the area and goalkeeper David de Gea was relieved to see Markel Susaeta's free-kick clip the defensive wall and drop wide of the goal.

Ashley Young did combine well with Tom Cleverley, but the former's shot was blocked by Bilbao's excellent right-back Andoni Iraola.

Moments later the Basques should have taken the lead, Iker Muniain played in by Llorente. His shot hit the post and, with the goal gaping, Oscar de Marcos put the ball over. It might have cost them, but there was no sign of any self-doubt for United to exploit.

Already needing to win by two clear goals, the tie was effectively beyond them when Llorente struck in the 23rd minute, hitting a long ball over the head of Ferdinand first time with his instep, wrong-footing de Gea.

Cleverley felt he should have had a penalty when he was tripped in the area, but United never looked like putting Bilbao under enough pressure to make them crumble.

If anything, Bilbao were even better in the second half as the hope drained out of the visitors and Iraola's dancing feet took him past the challenges of Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans, only for his shot to roll wide.

Gaizka Toquero, on for Llorente, should have made it two, but he blasted high over the crossbar, but de Marcos eventually did, lashing the ball home after Chris Smalling's header had dropped kindly for him.

Toqueros saw a header clip the top of the bar as Bilbao continued to push forward, although United did almost make a game of it with 10 minutes remaining when Wayne Rooney, shifted the ball from left to right and curled a perfect shot past Gorka Iraizoz. He did not bother celebrating. It was the that kind of night.

Danny Welbeck saw a long-range effort tipped round the post, but by that stage Bilbao were playing on cruise control. They will start to dismantle this famous old ground next year and move into the brand new arena under construction opposite.

Bilbao fans must hope their club are not tempted to break up this side to pay for it. They will take some beating as they head into the quarter-finals.

Irish Independent