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What Athletic Bilbao Defeat Means

For the first time since the 2001-2002 season, Manchester United will not play in a cup final, after losing to Athletic Bilbao over both legs.

The Spaniards were just better than us. Much better than us in fact. It makes a mockery of Sir Alex Ferguson’s comments last month about how good this current squad is.

“I feel we had the ability to go all the way to the final,” he claimed. “Luck wasn’t on our side, but I think we’ve got the ambition to compete with Barcelona and Real Madrid, and I don’t feel we’re that far away from them. I’m sure we’ll show that soon.”

Athletic Bilbao are the 7th best team in Spain, 33 points behind Real Madrid and 23 points behind Barcelona, yet over two legs they were the far superior team. Not necessarily just in terms of ability, as I believe if we’d created half the chances they did in both games we would have scored far more than just five goals, but in terms of their tactics and work ethic too. They defended so high up the pitch, leaving United passing around our back four and to the keeper time and again. When we did get it in to their half they were on us, swarming around the ball, forcing us in to mistakes or simply taking the ball off us.

A few years ago, had we faced such a tough game at Old Trafford, you’d imagine that Carlos Queiroz would have thought up something to give us a chance in the second leg. Think of those two games against Barcelona in the semi-finals in 2008 when we kept Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Eto’o, Henry and co. at bay, preventing them from scoring a single goal in both matches on our way to the final.

Last night’s defeat to Bilbao was a carbon copy of the first in terms of how they played and how we allowed them to play. We switched the formation and we brought in more experienced players but everything about the way we were dominated was the same. We’re a million miles away from Barcelona and Real Madrid and the manager is kidding himself if he thinks otherwise. Of course, I don’t think Sir Alex truly believes this but he has to say something to justify us not breaking the bank to bring in the world class midfielder we’ve been crying out for.

So, what does this defeat mean? If Ferguson is serious about winning another European Cup before he retires, he better get knocking on Uncle Malc’s door and ask him for some dosh. If he isn’t serious about it, if he is happy with scraping ourselves another title, then the defeat means nothing. We have nothing to distract us from winning the league now and I fancy us to do it.

Like after the finals against Barcelona, we’ll have to turn a blind eye to our flaws and just focus on the positives. Winning a 20th title is positive enough for me. Is it right that “the most valuable sports franchise” isn’t able to compete with the best teams in Europe? Quite frankly no, it’s not, but this is where we find ourselves and it certainly could be a lot worse than top of the table with ten games to go!

Come on reds.

About Scott

Scott is the editor of Red Matters - 50 Years of Supporting Manchester United and an author of Play Like Fergie's Boys and Not Nineteen Forever. He writes for ESPN, The Metro and Bleacher Report. Follow @R_o_M on Twitter.

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  1. Redbilly says:

    No fan of any club , even shit clubs like loserpool would show disrespect to their. Manager , even if opposition fans call them exert cunt under sun. SAF is his title so please fuck off elsewhere eg bitter blog if you wish to attribute a derogatory name to the greatest manager ever. Check bastard fuck off

  2. planetx6 says:


  3. Esteban says:

    MG – Agreed. Way too much negativity here. The scope of the injuries has been unprecedented (I’m sure Scott has stats backing this up). The effect of the injuries has been profound on form, fitness and cohesion, as well as SAF’s ability to go with his more typical 5 MF European set-up. Our European performance has been very bad, but someone accurately pointed out the loss of a settled defense as prime cause – shipping goals at OT for example. Also, I can’t imagine how tough it must have been to overcome (during the game) the psychological blow it was in Basel to have our captain suffer such a brutal injury. As for Europa, I think our guys couldn’t get past the knowledge that we all share – winning the trophy would have been minor, but the drag on the quest for the league of weekly thursday night football was major (particularly because of the injuries).

    It is incredible that we have a very good shot to get our 5th title in the last 6 years. I will repeat that, because many on this board seem to take that for granted or think it is not meaningful – we’re going for FIFTH TITLE IN SIX YEARS. That achievement has only been matched by our own form from 95 – ’01. This peiod domination has also been one that, during the first years coincided with very strong premier league performance in Europe, and in the recent years has coincided with the rise of Spurs and City, such that the PL is probably more balanced than any other top league. I also don’t buy that the premier league is in a permanent state of decline. It had a very bad year in Europe, but I’m pretty confident it will bounce right back next year.

    Finally, in terms of the squad – it is just not sensible to build a squad big enough to deal with all of the injuries we have had this year. It would mean that to the extent you didn’t have an extraordinary number of injuries, then you have a bunch of top players not getting games and presumably not happy about it. We have a wonderful array of young talent coming up (some of whom are already getting a lot of first team football). The transition is being executed very well.

  4. Redbilly says:

    European top class football is important . The reason united dominated the PL for so long is because the benchmark has been competing successfully amongst the best in Europe. Yes 20 is the Grail now. But in future , to be philosophical and accept at least we are in contention domestically would be a lowering of the benchmark . Before you know it it’s a top four place then mid table . Adjustments in line with the high expectation is the only acceptable course. These embarrassing defeats can be the making of us. It will be .

  5. James7t7 says:

    Any chance we can tempt Roy Keane out of retirement??????????????

  6. Sparkz says:

    Queiroz was hugely important tactically, no question. BUT – he left in 2008. Since then we’ve reached 2 Champions League finals and 1 quarter final. So I’d hardly say we’ve suffered in the competition without him.

    With regards to this season – did Fergie get things tactically wrong in the EUROPA league? Yes, no doubt. Some baffling midfield combinations in the last 3 games (although that was partly due to wanting to save the likes of Carrick and Scholes for the League.)

    But in the CHAMPIONS League? Sorry, somebody explain how we got our tactics wrong in that competition? The reason we got knocked out of that group was one reason and one reason only – shoddy, individual defensive mistakes. Pretty much every goal conceded was a mistake. Against Benfica we were 20 minutes away from qualification before De Gea kicked the ball straight to an opponent. In Basle, De Gea made a cock up for their first goal, and Smalling for the second. In the 3-3, the likes of Jones and Evra were to blame for their naive play. None of that is tactics, that’s individual sloppiness.

    As for complacency – again, people are not remembering properly. First half of the season we were beset by injuries, which forced Fergie’s hand with regards to team selection. The only game where you could say he didn’t pick his best XI was the opening match – where the in form guys like Nani, Anderson and Young were rested ahead of the Chelsea match, and Fletcher, Carrick, Park came in. That was still a strong line up though and we got a respectable 1-1 draw at a tough ground. The rest of the time, he picked pretty much the strongest side available. Look at the line ups again and find me an example of where he got complacent.

  7. TheRadLegion says:

    “So, what does this defeat mean? If Ferguson is serious about winning another European Cup before he retires, he better get knocking on Uncle Malc’s door and ask him for some dosh. If he isn’t serious about it, if he is happy with scraping ourselves another title, then the defeat means nothing. We have nothing to distract us from winning the league now and I fancy us to do it..”

    I sense angriness in your tone. Understandable, but show the guy some respect will you? I’m pretty sure the problem with our financial is probably uglier than you think.

  8. Devil310 says:

    @Sparks – spot on mate. Champions League exit was a combination of sloppiness and bad luck. But maybe it was a blessing in disguise. After Bayern put 7 past Basel I thought for a second that that could have been us. I’m not sure I could have handled seeing that type of slaughter by teams like Madrid, Barca or Bayern.

    I do have hope in the young kids tho. DannyBoy, Tunni, Pogba, Jones, Cleverly and Smalling could all be world class in 2-3 years; but the question is what do we do until that happens.

    For those asking themselves, do we change our style of play? Do we bring a new #2? Do we fire all the medical team staff? then you probably want another manager and simply don’t know it, because those are mayor some mayor structural changes that won’t happen overnight.

  9. Anand says:

    I think for most of the season, we’ve sort of lived in denial. Our form was patchy at best, with the likes of Carrick and Valencia hitting form in patches and then hitting a plateau. Carrick has been a work horse, giving it all he’s got, but he’s got some building to do to be Euro class, and believe he has the potential to do so. What I cannot believe is the way we’e handled ourselves mentally at the European stage. Fergie walked out of a media conf when asked about our struggles in Europe, Evra claimed that he had not joined United to play in the Europa league. These are not signs of a winning mentality. If the 2010 CL finals was a step back, this season was a further leap back for us.
    There are many things we need to look into, if we are to build up from here. Our youngsters need to toughen up and improve their game. Welbeck is a hard worker, but he needs to sort out that first touch of his ASAP. His stepping on the ball has led to many a trippings in the enemy box. Young has been good, but he’s a big pushover. Even I’d fancy my chances pushing him over and running away. Hernandez needs to work on his offside. And we need not one but TWO midfielders to replace the aging legs of Giggs and Scholes. It’s an indictment of our woes when we have to pull out our veterans from retirement to help our cause. It is an indictment of our wastefulness if we’re leaving our Euro class striker, a genius with a velvet touch and a grandmaster’s brain, out of the dressing room, out in the sun and rain to rust and rot.
    The only good thing we have right now, and which to an extent supersedes everything else, is our DNA. We KNOW how to win. We KNOW how to soak up pressure in the long run. What hurt us this season was matches which were do-or-die.
    Sir Alex will be introspecting a lot these days, and will have set a plan in motion for the next season. 25 years of carrying Manchester United on his able shoulders has taught him that, surely. What I know for sure is that the next season will be, HAS to be stronger. We are nothing if not that.

  10. Mr C says:

    @KVN March 16, 2012 at 13:48

    What you said needed to be said.

  11. MW says:

    It hurts to see United to play like this.. it was all over at Old Trafford in the first leg ! Remember when Old Trafford used to be hell for visitors? where is that now ? Everyone on the field except rooney (who seems to be working his ass off) are not putting that much effort !

    Yes we do NEED to buy someone that will give MUFC some flair but we also need to work on the mentality of the current squad, and to be honest we should have gotten Bale instead of Young.

    Lets just hope Fergie does something soon !

  12. Vilhelm28 says:

    A lot of heated comments here, but lets look at some fatcs.

    Spanish teams owe the Spanish government 600mill pounds in players income tax. Take into account that they banks even more for player purchases. A bomb will go off. As u all might have read, United just payed their tax, no small amount.

    SAF wanted Wealey. The deal was pretty much done as for transfer amount, but the wage demand was to high. Be happy SAF doesnt sacrifice the club for short term success.

    A major tactical change and all that buff, is not needed. SAF needs to tighten the team. The space between defence and midfield is to big/long enabling oppositions to sneak in between. I agree that some new blood/help in management could help.

    Players, we dont need to make big changes. But we need to replace giggs and scholes. They were the worlds best for many years. I dont want to get into names, but its no easy task replacing 1 worlds best player, leave alone 2.

    But make no mistake SAF will do it this summer. And btw DeGea, Jones, Smalling and Chica are cracking buys and will be world beaters. We are not far away.

  13. xol says:

    I think there’s a lot of over reaction. The Europa League won’t be around for long – just look at comments from various managers this season. “struggled to deal with thurs/sun timetable”. “We’ll give it a go” etc. Teams don’t want it enough, though some do – hence it’s like the FA Cup. You get knocked out of Europe and you’re put back in Europe in the naughty class where you find it hard to be motivated, so you don’t perform, then you get knocked out again.

    After the young signings, it looks like the plan is to build up the team for a few years, with trophies being a bonus. If money had been spent on ‘popular’ choice midfielders that cost too much, then I’d agree that ‘the plan’ has failed and that we should therefore go back to the drawing board. But the thing is, people said, ‘shit, barca have a young squad thats played together for 8+ years – we need to learn how to play like that and beat them’. So now, less than a fucking year later (ie not 8), people are saying, ‘It’s not working – we need to learn how to play like..’ FUCK OFF!

    Also seen some cracking comments from first time posters like the ‘bus to brooks bar’ chap that came on the other day.

  14. gfunk says:

    Word Mr Vilhelm28, spot on pal. We aint that far behind at all!!! Agree with other posts that Mike Phelan is out of his depth too.
    Get number 20 and our young uns another year older and kick on from there 12/13 season!!!

  15. Tannor says:

    I agree with most posters here, what is been said is so obvious even to us supporters, and this gives me hope because if most of us see these challenges with the team, then its no brains to think that the technical people are very much aware and will rectify them.


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