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.