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Athletic Bilbao - A Club on the Rise

Athletic Bilbao is known all over the football fraternity as a very unique club. It only fields players hailing from the Basque region and has done so since 1912. This makes it even more impressive that it is also the only club apart from Real Madrid and Barcelona to have never been relegated from the top flight of Spanish football. The most famous footballer to have played for Athletic Bilbao is, perhaps, Pichichi –  whose name is kept alive by the Pichichi Trophy, which is awarded to the top goalscorer in La Liga. However, their glory years are well behind them. Their last piece of silverware came in 1984, when they won the league and Copa del Rey double. Since then, they have either been battling relegation or languishing in mid table obscurity.

The last couple of seasons have seen an upturn in form. The appointment of Marcelo Bielsa has propelled them to even further heights and there is fresh optimism around the club. Many believe that the current crop of talented youngsters can bring them the silverware they’ve been craving for so long. And their status as an emerging force in Spain was brought to the world’s attention at Old Trafford last night.

The Bilbao fans were in full voice at Old Trafford on Thursday night.

This is definitely not the end of the road for United in Europe this season though. Their away form in Europe has been superior to their home form and as Bielsa says, United needed very few chances to score two goals and that is an indication of how dangerous they can be.

People will be quick to criticise the United defence. Some may even have something to say about Sir Alex’s team selection. But the fact of the matter remains that Manchester United were no match for the drive and skill of Munian, De Marcos et al.

Tactically, it was always going to be an interesting battle. There was never a question of Ferguson underestimating Athletic Bilbao. He is a self confessed fan of Bielsa’s work and taking a team lightly that has been branded by Pep Guardiola as the most ‘intense’ he has ever faced lightly was never an option for Ferguson. By playing Park Ji Sung and Phil Jones as a part of a midfield four, Ferguson showed that he was wary of Bilbao’s attacking prowess.

Bilbao press high up the pitch, get lots of players forward into attacking positions and play at a very high tempo. They gave no time to the central midfield pairing of Giggs and Jones, meaning that as soon as Giggs or Jones received the ball, opposition pressure would force them to play a backward pass. Ferguson tried to counter this by telling Smalling and Evans to carry the ball out of defence. It was a strategy that worked to an extent. In the first half, that is. In the second half, the Bilbao players started pressing the centre backs as well. There was one notable period in which United were unable to pass the ball out of their own half, going from side to side until Phil Jones, who does provide energy in the centre of midfield but is not very composed when under pressure, gave the ball away and Bilbao were able to flood players forward.

This all out attack strategy from Bilbao did leave them open to United’s counter attacks, but these were few and far between. I, for one believe that United looked threatening when they did attack. Their passing and movement was more fluid than what it has been over the past few weeks. But Bilbao outran, outthought and outclassed United. Some United fans will be quick to point fingers at the referee for the third goal, but the bitter truth is that Athletic Bilbao deserved the victory. And they could have won by a much bigger margin, had it not been for the heroics of one David De Gea.

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