Mar 08

Manchester United Match Preview: v. Athletic Bilbao

As expected, Real Madrid and Barcelona are dominating La Liga once again this season, and that naturally dominates the headlines, for better or worse.

But when you look at the best of the rest, Athletic Bilbao are solidly perched near the top of those ranks and head into the last few months of the season with a chance to lock up their first Champions League berth since 1998, and they’ll be a confident bunch as they pay a Europa League visit to Old Trafford tonight.

They opened the season with a five-match winless run, but they’ve put that poor start well behind them. Currently, they’re fifth in La Liga with 37 points from 25 matches, one point behind surprise package Levante and only six points behind Valencia. Athletic have been in solid form thus far in 2012, as they’re 10-3-2 in 15 matches in all competitions, and along with moving within reach of the Champions League places and advancing to the final 16 in the Europa League, they’ve also booked a Copa del Rey showdown against Barcelona.

Draws have been an issue for Athletic this season. To be more specific, draws from winning positions have been an issue. They have ten draws in the league, a total that’s bested by only Osasuna (11) and Racing Santander (12), and eight of those draws have come from winning positions. Overall, holding leads and surrendering late second-half goals seems to be an issue, really. They’ve scored a few key second-half goals themselves, but that’s overshadowed by how many they’ve surrendered. Of the 45 goals they’ve allowed in 42 competitive games this season, 24 have been allowed in the second half. That’s something that could be a tipping point in this tie, considering that more than half of United’s goals in all competitions this season have come in the second half, with Ashley Young‘s second-half double on Sunday at Spurs adding to that tally.

But this is a talented team led by a top, experienced manager in Marcelo Bielsa, and United can’t take it easy in either leg. Fernando Llorente has been one of La Liga’s top strikers for the last several seasons, and he’s in fine form this season, with 13 league goals in 22 appearances and 20 in all competitions. Llorente, at 27, is one of Atheltic’s older starters, as there are a number of younger players already in key roles. A couple of them have attracted the interest of United, in 23-year-old midfielder Javi Martinez and 19-year-old attacker Iker Muniain, both of whom will have a chance to showcase their vast ability and potential tonight.

So, United won’t have an easy task on their hands tonight or next Thursday, but they’re still solid favorites to progress. Back-to-back away wins over Norwich City and Tottenham have kept the deficit in the Premier League to only two points heading into a favorable stretch, and they’ve also erased some of the stink from United’s last home appearance, a 2-1 defeat to Ajax that saw United just scrape through to the round of 16 after having what appeared to be a commanding advantage.

Thanks to how things played out in that match after United had taken an early lead and how important it is to take a solid advantage to Bilbao, you can expect a positive approach and a strong starting XI tonight. It’s too early to have Tom Cleverley and Antonio Valencia back in the mix, but it looks likely that we’ll see Chris Smalling tonight, just eight days after a frightening (and painful) clash of heads with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in England’s friendly with the Netherlands.

It would be ideal to have the second leg at home, as it’s the most favorable scenario and it’s also what United are accustomed to, as this is the first time they’re playing the first leg of a European knockout round tie at home since the Champions League semis against Arsenal in 2009. But that worked out quite well, and with United rounding into winning form at the right time, this time should work well also. Besides, after multiple frustrations at home in Europe this season, United are due tonight, right?

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  • ash is the man

    We didnt play with any bite and looked at this game as if it were below us. No passion…….!! Chico is suffering from low confidence because he really should of scored one tonight. Rooney may have scored two but he was sloppy with the ball and his passing (especially early on ) was woeful……….! and I really hate his deep role in the team.
    Nani again was a big disappointment. I know he didnt have much time on the pitch but when he came on we were one goal behind and all he did was a flick into nowhere and a few step overs that ended up giving the ball away………. He didnt bring any determination or inspiring play!
    . We miss vally
    . Jones is not a midfielder
    . Rafeal = shocking error
    . Anderson cant find a pass/ and he doesnt look for the ball either, he is a poor excuse for a midfielder

  • Played off the park at home in the Europa fucking League. Nuff said. We went into this season thinking we could compete with Barcelona and Real Madrid… it turned out we’re a level below Athletic fucking Bilbao. Embarrassing.

    Some lean years ahead at Old Trafford, boys. Better brace yourselves for it.

    The dark reality of the Glazer regime is taking hold now. This is what happens when you let some greedy Yank parasites siphon HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS out of your club, and tell the greatest manager in the history of football that the “world’s biggest club” will be scrounging around for “VALUE” signings from now on.

    Glazer fucking OUT.

  • Just read that Anderson picked up an injury when chasing De Marcus for their last goal.

    Also, freekick given for Evra’s lack of boot, was ridiculous and not in any referee book. Poor ref. Worse United.

    Finally, five home games in Europe this season.
    Won 1, Lost 2, Drawn 2
    8)

    • @Opti: you stealin my gig bro? I’m the ref basher. :oops: we need reinforcements. Ones that can’t be pushed off the ball.

      And inventing a new rule to give them a free kick is a new low in refing errors.

  • HOW THE FUCK DO YOU GUYS MANAGE TO CARE FOR THE EUROPA LEAGUE?!

    • Moscow is my heaven

      @RedDevilEddy: Anderson did pretty well today :lol:

      • @Moscow is my heaven: Everyone besides De Gea and Young were shit today. We did better when Carrick came on, but nobody else than those two seemed to care. Rafael’s behavior on the last goal kind of sums up how much our players want to win this tournament….

    • @RedDevilEddy: It is not the loss by itself but the way United got outplayed by a second string La Liga team. It is yet another indication of United decline. Supporters are accustomed to United handling with ease the likes of Bilbao be it at OT or on the road. Even without fielding the strongest team.

      What we witnessed today clearly demonstrated one more time that United need to compensate for the gap in quality by putting an extra effort even against the teams of Bilbao, Ajax or Basel caliber. And when this extra effort is lacking they cannot get a positive result.

      Finally, today’s defeat is so painfully reminiscent of lackluster performances in the CL group stage this year. Would you say that United didn’t care about CL either?

      • @Andrei: The Champions League was hugely dissapointing. We were incredibly boor against Basel and away to Benfica, but we really did well at home and were unlucky not to win. By some goals as well! At home to Basel we were careless and showed our inexperience in defence, when we went away I got a feeling that no-one really knew what to do. We seemed to take the group-stages as some ordinary thing we just had to play to go through, without actually caring about the results of those games. I doubt we would have conceded any of the goals we did to Benfica or away to Basel with Vidic on the pitch, but the overall play was really laxture. And to be fair, it’s been that way for some time. Not since the 2007/08 season have we looked like giving a shit in Europe, I don’t know if it’s complacency, inexperience, nerves or whatever, but this side has got more than enough quality to get far in competitions. Thing is, something just seems to go wrong. Squad rotation, using too many young players, something’s just not right.

        Fact is the defence we used today, and the midfield, was not going to get us anywhere. Smalling and Evans? Jones and Giggs? Then Evans and Smalling, which is IMO the worst centre-back pairing we’ve got in the club. Say what you want about Wes Brown and John O’shea but they actually gave us some composure and focus in defence, which we seriously lack at the moment. Can you honestly say, from the bottom of your heart, that Wes Brown would be toyed with by Llorente the way Evans was today? I can’t see it. And with Vidic in there, he wouldn’t have got a sniff! Jones and Giggsy is the dumbest, most insane midfield pair we have ever had, even worse than Park and Rafael. Two players with no positional sense whatsoever, Jones is a beast physically but mentally I’d have every other United player next to him. And Giggsy is defensively shit positionally, he may do well got get in some tackles but just like Jones he gives opponents too much space. It’s no wonder we looked better when Carrick came on, and conceded more goals when Jones went down.

        You all said experiment with kids in Europa League. Now we do that and it’s all doom and gloom. I don’t get it, play the kids in Europa and you will lose. AND get outplayed.

        • @RedDevilEddy: “…but this side has got more than enough quality to get far in competitions”

          It is maybe true but I definitely don’t see any proof of this in Europe. This United team is optimized to milk results against EPL opposition but it is not working against tactically better equipped European teams. Most importantly this team has no longer enough quality to be untouchable by a second string European club. Even half-interested United team circa 2007-8 would have never lost to Bilbao let alone be completely outclassed at OT.

          “You all said experiment with kids in Europa League. Now we do that and it’s all doom and gloom. I don’t get it, play the kids in Europa and you will lose. AND get outplayed”

          Sorry but United hardly played the kids tonight. It was the first team minus 2-3 regular starters.

        • Hate to disappoint you mate but Evra, Rooney,Young,Park,Giggs,Evans are harldy kids and ddegea is our first choice Goalie besides his age. This team could play in premiership without raising eyebrows but they are just not good enough for Europe.

      • @Andrei: Exactly! Perfectly put.

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