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“Resilience” to take United through in Bilbao tie

March 15, 2012 Tags: , Matches 79 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson certainly talks a good game, praising his side’s durability ahead of Manchester United’s crucial Europa League second leg clash with Athletic Bilbao on Thursday night. United will need resilience and more, with Ferguson’s side, 3-2 down from the first leg at Old Trafford, needing to win by two clear goals – or score four – at San Mames. Given the vibrancy with Athletic attacked last week, United will need to pull off one of the side’s finest European away performances of recent years to progress.

The Reds’ home defeat to the Basque outfit was the second successive turnover at Old Trafford in the competition, and comes after a European season in which the Reds have conspicuously failed, after reaching three Champions League finals in the past four years.

Despite the campaign’s comparative failures, and the size of the task ahead, Ferguson believes United’s durability will take the club through to a quarter-final spot. However, the Scot’s side will have to do so without several players, including Anderson, Phil Jones and Nani, who were left in Manchester.  Chris Smalling is unlikely to be risked from the start after a head wound opened up in spectacular style in last week’s encounter.

Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia and French teenager Paul Pogba travelled with the squad Spain and could play some part. Tom Cleverley is again likely to be left on the bench, as was the 22-year-old midfielder for United’s weekend victory over West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford.

“We keep carrying on and it points to a resilience in the team that is really admirable,” Ferguson said on Wednesday.

“They have done exceptionally well. It is an achievement in the sense of they’re still hanging in there. We still can win this game tomorrow and I think the players believe that. It’s a difficult tie for us. Bilbao have a tremendous advantage now, so it’s a challenge – but not one that is beyond us. Our record away from home in Europe helps us. We have done really well the last few years away from home but it’s going to need a good performance.”

Indeed, United hasn’t turned around a first leg defeat in European competition since 2007, beating Roma 7-1 at Old Trafford in the Champions League. But the Reds may have to change a defensive-minded philosophy away from Old Trafford that has brought success, but may simply invite Athletic to reprise the exciting possession-based attacking game of last week’s encounter.

Ferguson may gamble on his senior pros at San Mames, with Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick all likely to start at San Mames. United faces Wolverhampton Wanderers away at Molineux on Sunday, and Ferguson has a fine line to trend between progressing in the Europa League and gambling the Reds’ domestic ambitions. He has consistently rotated his resources in European competition this season.

Athletic Club Bilbao versus Manchester United, Europa League, San Mames, 15 March 2012, 6pmDespite defeat to Bilbao, confidence is high in the camp after United reached the Premier League summit at the weekend. With City losing, United now controls the title race for the first time since the autumn.

And winger Ashley Young, who has recently returned to something approaching his late summer form, says that United’s team spirit could be the foundation for an unlikely result in Spain. Young scored twice in United’s recent victory over Tottenham Hotspur and again impressed in the weekend win against West Brom.

“It is unusual that we find ourselves in this position but there is a great team spirit here and everyone is full of confidence,” said the 26-year-old former Aston Villa star.

“Our form in general makes us believe we can score wherever we play. Our attacking play has been fantastic of late and we believe we can score the two goals we need. Our focus has not changed from the start of the season. We want to win every competition we enter and the Europa League is no different.

“Bilbao were an impressive team last week. They were a very attacking team, had a good team shape and at times we found them hard to break down. But I am sure if we are on our game 100% we can go there and get the win we need.”

Meanwhile, Athletic manager Marcelo Bielsa is again likely use the outstanding midfielder Javi Martínez in defence, albeit in a role that offers extensive license to roam. Martínez exemplified the committed attacking approach Bilbao offered at Old Trafford, frequently pushing into midfield as the visitors dominated possession and territory.

Attackers Iker Muniain, Markel Susaeta and Fernando Llorente will again look to trouble a United back-four that looked anything but assured at Old Trafford. Indeed, Ferguson’s side will need to adopt a new approach to countering Bilbao more successfully than last week.

Despite the outstanding performance at Old Trafford, Bilbao was beaten 2-1 by Ossasuna at the weekend; it is consistency that coach Bielsa says is most difficult for those clubs outside Spain’s duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Bielsa has led Bilbao to fifth in La Liga, despite a policy of recruiting only local players – or those players with a local connection – and a tiny budget by United’s standards. Modest to the last, the former Chile and Argentina coach refuses to take any personal credit for the club’s recent progress.

“The difference in points and finance is there for everyone to see,” said the Argentine.

“But I also believe that on one night or in one match a team like Athletic can get very close to the level of opponents such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United. However, to maintain that throughout an entire league season is extremely difficult.

“There is no prestige to coaching a national side or beating Manchester United. Personal things like that do not concern me. They do not last very long. The evaluation of anything has to be done over the long-term, not the short. And we still have another very important 90 minutes ahead of us.”

Could there be an omen in history for United, even if the odds appear stacked against progression? The clubs’ only previous meetings came over 50 years ago in the quarter-finals of the European Cup – Bilbao beat Sir Matt Busby’s United 5-3 in Spain, only to lose the return fixture 3-0 at Maine Road.

To repeat that feat United will have to build on a poor record in Spain, with the Reds having won only twice in the club’s history against Spanish opposition, on Spanish soil. There’s no time like the present to buck that trend, although in one of the most atmospheric Spanish stadiums, nicknamed The Cathedral by locals, it may take a minor miracle from Ferguson’s men.

Match Facts
Athletic Club Bilbao versus Manchester United, Europa League, San Mames, 15 March 2012, 6pm

Possible Teams
Bilbao: (4-1-4-1): Iraizoz; Iraola, Martínez, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe; Iturraspe, de Marcos, Herrera; Susaeta, Llorente, Muniain. Subs from: San Jose, Oscar; López, Del Campo, Raúl, Toquero, Pérez, Gomez, Ekiza.

United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Park; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Fabio, Smalling, Pogba, Cleverley, Young, Giggs, Berbatov, Owen, Hernandez

United: WLWWLW
Bilbao: LWDWWL

Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (TUR)
Assistant referees: Tarik Ongun, Mustafa Eyisoy
Additional assistant referees: Hüseyin Göçek, Bülent Yıldırım

Eurovision football contest: United nul points

March 9, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 18 comments

Manchester United sits firmly adrift of its own European contest this season, and while the lady is yet to sing, she’s certainly warming up her vocal chords after yet another disastrous home performance from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men on Thursday night. Beaten 3-2 by Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford – it should have been a lot more than that – and probably out of the Europa League, Ferguson is left to reflect on a European campaign that has been complacent, slapdash and simply not good enough this season.

So poor has United been that the campaign has become an embarrassment to a team Ferguson claims is “not that far away” from Real Madrid and Barcelona. Fans, given the evidence presented so far this season, beg to differ.

In truth Bilbao was more than good value for the win, with Marcelo Bielsa’s side dominating possession and territory, and in taking 36 shots at goal, far more attacking than the home side. If ever there was a case study in the brand of vibrant, creative, and passionate attacking play United has been so famed for, here it was.

Bilbao’s ability to pass through and around United’s slapdash back four was consummate. But this is a side lying fifth in La Liga and widely considered the most ‘direct’ of all Spanish outfits. Fine though Bielsa’s side is, this is no mini-Barcelona, with Catalan-esque ability to retain the ball for long periods. Yet, the Argentinian’s side easily out-passed United at Old Trafford; winning possession with high tempo pressing, and distributing from back to front dynamically. Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones in central midfield simply couldn’t live with it.

Once again there were excuses from Ferguson, although the Scot did have the good grace not to insult United fans by dwelling on Athletic’s two second-half goals that – technically – should have been ruled out. The Basque side’s single goal winning margin was not reflective of a tie the visitors dominated; a United victory would have been deeply unjust.

Yet, as in poor results against Benfica, FC Basel, and Ajax this season, Ferguson failed to hit the true nail anywhere near the head. This United side is simply not good enough in European terms. In total Ferguson has blamed lack of concentration, inexperience and bad luck for poor results this season. Lack of quality is a more realistic charge to make.

“Our defending really wasn’t very good at all, and that kept us on the back foot,” admitted the 70-year-old United manager.

“I am going to have to look at ways of possibly bringing Rio Ferdinand back in. He is so important to us, in terms of experience at the back, so I will have to see if that can be done, without disrupting things in the Premier League.

“We have had a bad year in Europe. We conceded three against Basel, two against Benfica, another three against Bilbao and two to Ajax. That tells its own story. Maybe it is just one of those years where we are having to restock and assess how we should approach games at home. There has been that slackness all season.”

But many supporters have argued that the “slackness” identified by Ferguson is driven by the manager himself, whose own complacent approach began with the Reds’ opening Champions League game away at Benfica, where the Scot made significant changes to his side, and has continued through nine European fixtures to date.

This has proven a disastrous strategy; results have demonstrated that United is simply not good enough to be complacent, nor for Ferguson to rotate heavily.

Admirably though that quartet has performed at Old Trafford this season, none is in the top-tier of European heavyweights. Not even close. Indeed, if Ferguson is not simply pulling the wool over supporters’ eyes in claiming United is close to Barcelona or even Madrid’s quality, then United has suffered the longest run of unfortunate defeats in history.

Few fans will buy into that theory.

It represents a huge let down from the summer’s optimism, where many fans bought into the promise of a youthful revolution at Old Trafford. If Barcelona was the model of youth development to sustainable success then there was every reason to believe that Ferguson was the best man to follow through on that promise.

In truth United has progressed not one iota from humiliating defeat at Wembley. Worse, it appears a very long road from where United now is, to the level required to win a third European Cup. The fear is that the owners simply do not care whether United matches Spain’s finest.

There are still voices of optimism. Former Red Gary Neville says that United’s younger players could learn from a difficult European campaign – a lesson that the defender and his colleagues in the ‘class of 1992’ were taught the very hard way.

“The only way you learn European football is by playing and getting to the point where you start to absorb lessons,” said Neville in United Review, ahead of Thursday’s defeat.

“The manager knows he’s got talented young players who are going to be at United for a number of years, and I think this year has almost been a step back to go forwards in Europe. The younger players in our squad will take a lot out of this season.

“There is a subtlety and attention to detail you need in Europe. Inches matter and whereas the Premier League can be a little more forgiving, in Europe opponents are more ruthless and more clinical in front of goal. I remember it when we were young lads too. It’s just something you have to go through.

“It’s an underachievement when you get to three finals in four years, then don’t get past the group stage, but these are great experiences for the young lads. You get the fruits of your labour over time and these lads have huge talent.”

It’s a positive outlook based in a belief that Ferguson will be given the time and budget to build a third European-class side. That, of course, may not be founded in fact, with the holes in Ferguson’s squad seemingly requiring not solely time for personnel development, but also financial investment that is not going to come under the Glazer family’s ownership.

It is likely that the United manager will have no more than £30 million to spend in the market prior to the Singapore IPO, which is currently on permanent hiatus.

Time is also a factor. Younger players such as Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, the da Silva brothers, and David de Gea may be years from their peak. Ferguson is not, with the manager expected to step down by 2014 at the very latest. It may well be that the 2008 side was Ferguson’s last peak, with the team degrading each season hence. The Scot’s eventual replacement will reap any benefit from the growing maturity of younger players within the United squad.

In the meantime United fans can reflect on the most disappointing European campaign for seven years, and a future that looks far less rosy than the bubble that fans enjoyed in August. On reflection United’s early season performances have been replicated at no point past mid-September, even if the side is still within two points of the Premier League leaders.

Yet, Athletic reminded home supporters what has been missing for much of the season. This was a performance of creative, attacking vibrancy and real passion. How Old Trafford regulars would love to see that more often from United. Or at all in Europe. This should be a wake up call. Then again, so should matches against Benfica, FC Basel, and Ajax.

Fans will hope that Ferguson and his kids learn quickly enough to take the big European prize in the near-term. For now, the jury is firmly out on that question.

Fergie urges Reds to ‘wake up’ for Bilbao clash

March 8, 2012 Tags: , Matches 203 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has called on his troops to “waken up” if Manchester United is to progress to the Europa League quarter-final. Beaten at home by Ajax in the previous round, Untied has now clocked up eight sub-par performances in succession in European competition this season – a trend varyingly blamed on poor form, injury, complacency and the manager’s propensity to tinker.

No more, says the United manager, with the Scot promising to field a full strength side against Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford on Thursday night. The United manager may need to, with the Basque side lying fifth in La Liga and deploying a committed attacking style. Led by in-demand 13-goal leading scorer Ferdnando Llorente, Bilbao is just a single point off Champions League qualification.

It is no mean feat for a supporter-owned club that still largely employs the candera system of recruiting only players of Basque origin. One of Spain’s oldest club’s Athletic – note the English demarcation, initiated by the club’s Southampton-based founders – operates on a fraction of United’s budget, from its atmospheric San Mamés base.

But the self-imposed restrictions are unlikely to fool Ferguson, even if complacency in European competition has been a genuine problem for United’s players this season. The Basque side is likely to offer every bit as stiff a test as FC Basel, Benfica and Ajax have in the campaign.

With United facing successive home ties against Ahtletic and then West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford on Sunday, Ferguson is set to select a strong side against the Basque visitors.

“It’s a very difficult tie,” said Ferguson on Wednesday.

“From what we’ve seen, Bilbao are a very progressive team in Spain at the moment and it’s going to be a difficult game for us. It’s a game in which we need to waken up, there’s no question about that. Some of our European form this season has been disappointing but it’s an opportunity to progress and we have to take that opportunity. But it will need a very good performance.

“I don’t know if we’re making too many changes in these games. Certainly in the second leg against Ajax we did that, and in the Champions League group stage we made some changes. But we made mistakes in the group stage too, so it’s our own fault. But we’ll play a strong side against Bilbao and hopefully that makes a difference.”

It is just United’s second fixture with the Basque side, after Sir Matt Busby’s ‘Babes’ played, and beat, Bilbao in the European Cup quarter-final in early 1957. Losing the away fixture 5-3, Busby’s young side turned the tie around with a 3-0 at Maine Road to qualify for the semi-final. It provides an excersice in nostalgia, with United’s 11 a who’s who of the Babes: Wood, Foulkes, Byrne, Colman, Jones, Edwards, Berry, Whelan, Taylor, Viollet, Pegg.

Bilbao is no longer at the top table of European football, having won the last of the club’s eight La Liga titles in the mid-1980s. But under Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa, Bilbao has successfully married the traditional attacking Basque approach, to the one and two-touch close passing game the former national team manager prefers.

“They’ve got different qualities from a lot of Spanish teams,” Ferguson added.

“They press the ball very well and they’re not afraid to flood players forward in attack. They’re very positive and have no hesitation in committing themselves to attack at any point, with a number of players. It’s the best Athletic Bilbao team I’ve seen for some years.

“I’ve not met Marcelo Bielsa but I admire his work. He’s overseen the emergence of a very good, determined, organised Bilbao side with great belief. He’s instilled those qualities in his team. We’ll have to be strong at the back; if you offered me a 1-0 tomorrow I’d take it, as it’s much better than a 2-1 or 3-2.”

Manchester United v Athletic Bilbao, Europa League, Old Trafford, 8 March 2012Ferguson will counter the threat by deploying a strong starting side, although there are bound to be changes to the team that beat Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane last weekend. Indeed, Ferguson has largely used European competition to offer minutes to second-string players this term, and the strategy may not change at Old Trafford on Thursday.

Brazilian midfielder Anderson, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernández, Park Ji-Sung and Ryan Giggs are all in line to play some part in the fixture. However, having deployed a callow back-four and goalkeeper – to disastrous effect – against Ajax at Old Trafford last month, the Scot is likely to field the same rearguard that saw off Spurs on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Bilbao arrive with one of Europe’s most sought after strikers in Llorente, who has scored 13 goals in 22 La Liga appearances this season. The 6’5″ striker provides an obvious aerial threat, but has proven a consistent goalscorer at both domestic and international level.

“Manchester are obviously the favourites. They always play Champions League and compete with teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid,” Llorente told the Europa Press Association.

“They are one of the big teams in Europe and we’re novices. Rooney is a real killer. He has a great mentality and is a great inspiration for his team-mates. I expect a very exciting game. We are really looking forward to the game, and will do our utmost to get a good result. We have been doing quite well and might cause an upset.

“This round against Manchester United will be a key moment in my sporting career so far. After the World Cup in 2010 and the Copa del Rey final coming up, this is the most important match ever for me. To play at Old Trafford is a dream challenge for any footballer and now I am dreaming of success on that pitch. Matches like this are a special test of my ability.”

Bielsa has more than a single weapon in his locker though, with Markel Susaeta and outstanding youngster Iker Muniain offering Llorente support from the flanks. Pamplona-born Muniain, who has forced his way into the full Spain squad this season, is likely to attract big-money summer offers, with the 19-year-old being compared in style to Lionel Messi. Certainly Munaian’s diminutive build and pacey dribbling style could offer United’s right-back a genuine challenge.

The outstanding Javi Martinez, a defensive midfielder whom many home supporters would like to see in United red, will anchor Athletic’s engine room.

“We’re very proud and full of hope and excitement,” said Argentinian Bielsa, who managed the national team from 1998 to 2004.

“Taking on this Manchester United side, with what they’ve achieved, the great players they have, and the man responsible for getting them where they are, represents the highest level of competition for us.”

Should Bilbao pull off a result at Old Trafford, which is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility given the hosts’ European form this season, Bielsa may readjust his ambition. History does not bode well for the visitors, with Athletic having lost half of the club’s 14 games against English sides. But make no mistake, Bilbao is close to the best sides United has faced in any European competition this season, even if the Basque side has lost its past two European away fixtures.

Match Facts
Manchester United versus Atletic Bilbao, Old Trafford, Europa League, Thursday 8 March 2012, 8.05pm

Potential Line-ups
United (4-4-2): de Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Smalling, Fabio; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Young; Berbatov, Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Rafael, Evra, Evans, Fryers, Scholes, Park, Nani, Welbeck, Rooney, Owen.

Bilbao (4-3-3): Iraizoz; Iraola, Amorebieta, San Jose, Aurtenetxe; , Martínez, Herrera, Oscar; Susaeta, Llorente, Muniaín. Subs from: López, Del Campo, Raúl, Toquero, Pérez, Gomez, Ekiza

United: WDWLWW
Bilbao: WDLWDW

Referee: Florian Meyer (GER)
Assistant referees: Holger Henschel, Jan-Hendrik Salver
Additional assistant referees: Deniz Aytekin, Markus Wingenbach
Fourth official: Michael Weiner