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United 2 Athletic Bilbao 3: A Tough Challenge Awaits In San Mames

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Manchester United’s Europa League hopes are hanging by a thread after a simply majestic performance from Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford earned Marcelo Bielsa’s side the advantage going into next Thursday’s return-leg at San Mames.

The fact United are only a goal behind Bilbao in the tie is a miracle as the Basque side dominated for large periods of the game and but for the performance of David De Gea would have already secured their passage through to the quarter-finals.

Fernando Llorente unsurprisingly was causing United problems from the off and came close to scoring inside 10 minutes but after holding of the ball on the edge of the box, his shot on the turn crept narrowly wide of De Gea’s far-post.

Bilbao were controlling the ball well, keeping the ball for long periods early on with Gorka Iraizoz barley having to sweat inside the opening 20 minutes as a straight-forward Javier Hernandez drive was he had to deal with early on.

Hernandez though was looking bright and after Wayne Rooney took a quick free-kick the Mexican linked up with Ryan Giggs ending his run with a low shot towards goal which Iraizoz could only parry out into Rooney’s path to tap the ball home from close range.

It was a lead which quite frankly United didn’t deserve, but that didn’t put Bilbao off from their attacking intents as Llorente headed over before Ander Herrera picked out Markel Susseta through on goal whose lob sailed wide of De Gea’s goal.

It was a wasted chance from Susseta but on their next attack Bilbao came close to equalising when Andoni Irola forced De Gea into a smart save at his near post with the keeper getting down well to tip the ball out for a corner.

Bilbao finally equalised on the stroke of half-time when Markel Susaeta crossed a dangerous ball from the right. Llorente who was involved in the build-up ghosted past Phil Jones and met the ball perfectly giving De Gea simply no chance.

After the break the pattern of the game didn’t change as Bilbao kept the pressure up with De Gea having to do well to save Iker Munain’s drive from outside the area before brilliantly tipping over a curler from Llorente who was impressing with every touch.

Sir Alex Ferguson had to make changes and Michael Carrick and Anderson were brought on to replace the infective Park Ji-Sung and Chris Smalling who was taken off with a head injury. The changes sadly wouldn’t prevent BIlbao from taking the lead.

Shortly after Munain saw a close-range effort saved by De Gea, the midfielder linked up with Herera who delicately lifted the ball over United’s defence for de Marcos who had sailed narrowly offside to volley home into the far corner.

With time running out it looked like Bilbao would be taking a 2-1 lead back to Spain, but they scored a third to send their supporters into a place where only dreams can be matched. The goal though was riddled in controversy.

Strangely referee Florian Meyer awarded Bilbao a free-kick deep in their half when Patrice Evra lost his boot with United threatening to score an equaliser. Bilbao attacked and to the fury of Old Trafford made it 3-1.

A mix-up involving Jones and Evans allowed Gaizka Toquero time and space to fire a shot towards goal. De Gea kept the ball out but naively Rafael switched off allowing Munain to ghost in and fire the ball home at the near-post.

There was still time on the clock for United to reduce the visitors lead when de Marcos handled a Hernandez cross. Rooney fired home the resulting penalty and Carrick saw a shot blocked in injury-time as the visitors held on for a famous victory.

United: De Gea, Evra, Evans, Smalling (Carrick), Rafael, Young, Jones, Giggs (Nani), Park (Anderson), Rooney, Hernandez.

Star Man

It’s hard to look past the performance of Llorente who showed why he is rated amongst Europe’s top strikers. He led the line fantastically offering Bilbao an outlet every time he collected the ball. But for the performance of De Gea he would have left Old Trafford with a famous hat-trick. He is a star of the present as well as the future.

By Adam Dennehey @ADennehey87