De Gea’s heroics save shameful United
Manchester Utd 2
Athletic Bilbao 3
Outplayed, outpassed and outsung, Manchester United are not out of the Europa League but they are living so dangerously.
Only a late penalty from Wayne Rooney gave them a lifeline to take to San Mames on March 15. If they play as badly as this again, United will be out.
From back to front, the Basques were superior. United's best player was a Spaniard. Only David de Gea, a figure of defiance when too many team-mates faltered, really delivered, followed by Rooney, who scored twice.
Without De Gea's remarkable reflex saves, particularly early in the second half, United would be facing mission impossible in Bilbao. It promises to be a daunting enough evening anyway, particularly with a high-class ambush lying in wait.
Bilbao had started so smoothly, the class of ball-playing centre-halves such as Javi Martinez and tall, mobile centre-forwards like Fernando Llorente immediately, thrillingly apparent.
The Basques were backed by 7,000 supporters, all singing, all resplendent in their red-and-white-striped shirts.
They had plenty to entertain them. Llorente turned sharply and shot wide. Martinez glided forward. Llorente was dispossessed by Jonny Evans. Although Rooney then shot wide, Bilbao still commanded the ball and the attention.
Ander Herrera shimmied past Phil Jones. Markel Susaeta had a low shot saved by De Gea.
United weathered the storm that had blown up from the Atlantic, seizing the lead after 19 minutes, showing all their experience in staying calm and picking their moments to strike.
Ryan Giggs ghosted through from his central-midfield station, soon transferring the ball cleverly to Javier Hernandez. The Mexican worked the ball neatly on to his left foot, bringing a low stop from Gorka Iraizoz.
The shot was firm but the Athletic 'keeper could have held it. The ball squirted clear to Rooney, who was lurking and looking for scraps. Rooney swept the ball into the empty net.
Bilbao failed to be frustrated. They kept building, kept speeding the ball through United's midfield and down the flanks. Andoni Iraola, nominally right-back, kept going on long runs, one of them ended only by the alertness of Evans.
Back came the Basques again, often looking for Llorente. Just before the half-hour mark, the Bilbao No 9 beat Chris Smalling in the air but headed over. Still the visitors came calling and they should have equalised after 32 minutes. With United's defence caught square, Susaeta darted through but lifted the ball wastefully over with De Gea stranded.
Still they came, brimming with movement in their 4-3-3 formation. De Gea denied Iraola, who seemed to have applied for residency in United's half. Martinez continued to exude class at the back, stepping out to nick the ball off Giggs.
All this artistry and adventure deserved reward. It duly arrived shortly before the interval. Llorente began and finished it, racing away from Jones and touching the ball to the omnipresent Iraola.
The full-back sent Susaeta flying down the inside-right channel and Llorente made his move. Jones could have tracked back with him. Chris Smalling could have been far more alert to Llorente's arrival.
In the end it was left to Rafael to come across but Llorente was already stooping to head in Susaeta's cross for his 20th club goal of the season.
Somewhere in Chelsea, a tailor is designing T-shirts with the logo 'I Saw Fernando Score'.
Bilbao maintained the pressure after the break. Only De Gea kept the score down, the Spaniard showing wonderful agility to claw away shots from Llorente and then Iker Muniain.
Bilbao were breaking through midfield at will. Ferguson tried to reclaim the centre, introducing Michael Carrick and Anderson, withdrawing Park Ji-sung and Smalling, whose head wound had clearly not healed from the England game. Jones dropped back into defence.
Before taking up his new role on the left, Rooney had conjured up a neat pass to release Hernandez, who over-elaborated and the moment was lost. The Mexican was held back by a former Liverpool defender, who struggled to challenge Hernandez properly. Do you know the way, San Jose?
Still De Gea kept United alive, making a superb save from Muniain, who had sped past Jones. But a second goal was coming, another move that cut through a shockingly sloppy, slow-reacting United. Playing a one-two with Herrera, Oscar De Marcos collected the return ball effortlessly, albeit fortuitously as he was fractionally offside. The officials failed to spot it and De Marcos took full advantage, volleying the ball past De Gea.
United's Spanish 'keeper is a fan of heavy metal music and he would have needed his beloved Metallica at full volume to drown out the cheers of the Bilbao fans.
This was not in the script. United were taking the Europa League seriously and here they were being outplayed at Old Trafford. Rooney, having been an emergency left-back for a while, pushed further forward. Athletic kept hunting a third. De Gea kept United in the tie, pushing over a powerful drive from the substitute Gaizka Toquero. Rooney was one of the few in red who fought hard, even tracking back to clear and then rejoin Hernandez in attack.
United's night got worse when De Gea pushed out De Marcos' shot but he was let down by his defence. Nobody covered. De Gea despairingly attempted to get to the loose ball but Muniain got there first, driving it into the net.
There was more, Rooney drilling in that late penalty after a De Marcos handball to give United hope. (© Daily Telegraph, London)