Manchester United slumped to a 3-2 home defeat against Athletic Bilbao, in the first leg of the round of 16 of the Europa League.
Despite David DeGea’s heroic performance, the Red Devils now face an uphill struggle to overturn the deficit in Spain in a week time.
United were outplayed, outthought and outran and, bar for the former Atletico Madrid’s man, the scoreline could have been a lot worse.
From the moment United got knocked out in Basel, Ferguson has made clear that his team have learnt from their mistakes in the Champions League and they were not going to take this competition lightly.
If tonight’s result wasn’t caused by complacency then Fergie has some serious issue to deal with, as the display was as poor as United have been in Europe in recent years.
Despite a strong line-up – featuring Rafael, Smalling, Evans and Evra at the back with Young, Jones, Giggs and Park in midfield and Rooney and Hernandez up-front – United never looked like bossing the game and were almost constantly on the back foot.
United were slow and lacked tempo but took the lead after 22 minutes as Wayne Rooney was quick to convert after Hernandez had forced a smart save from Iraizoz, following some clever work from Giggs in the penalty box.
Athletic should have leveled ten minutes later, as Markel Susaeta lobbed wide after evading United’s defence, before DeGea palmed away Antoni Iraola’s shot.
Bielsa’s men were deservedly level just before halftime, when Fernando Llorente headed home, after Susaeta was allowed to ghost behind United back four following an excellent passage of play.
Any hopes of a turnaround in the second half were quickly dashed, as the Basque dominated possession, with a mixture of slick passes and brilliant movements without the ball.
DeGea single-handedly kept Athletic at bay with three fantastic saves which denied Llorente and Muniain; but even the brilliant Spaniard was forced to capitulate when Herrera’s lob pass found DeMarcos who drilled home his side’s brilliant second goal.
United were stunned, while the 7000-strong Basque contingent went berserk in the stands.
This was Athletic’s first visit to Old Trafford since 1957 and Marcelo Bielsa’s youngsters definitely gave their fans something to cheer about and, perhaps, memories they will cherish for a long time.
Carrick then replaced the injured Chris Smalling, with Anderson and Nani coming on for Park and Giggs, but United never looked threatening going forward and, when Rafael fell asleep after another excellent DeGea’s save allowing Muniain to hammer in Athletic’s third goal, United looked as good as gone.
In truth, the goal originated from a farcical free-kick given by the referee after Evra had passed the ball after losing his boot, but United didn’t deserve any luck tonight.
That Rooney restored some hope with a last minute penalty mattered little. The damage had been done.
United have left themselves a mountain to climb and now look extremely unlikely to progress to the quarter-finals.
While some might argue that not playing in the Europa League could benefit United in their quest for an unprecedented 20th title, it’s striking to see how poor they have been in Europe this season.
After years of success on the continental stage, United look to have lost their way.
Whether this is just down to bad performances or has deeper roots, only time will tell. The only certainty is that the love affair between United and Europe isn’t blossoming this season.