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Published: March 9, 2012 | 10:49 am
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OLD Trafford’s reputation as one of Europe’s most formidable fortresses lies in tatters.

Manchester United failed to heed Sir Alex Ferguson’s wake-up call last night and endured another European nightmare in their own backyard. They were given a footballing lesson by Athletic Bilbao, who will take a one-goal lead back to Basque country for next Thursday’s second leg.

And if they play anywhere near as well as this, they should comfortably finish off the job in their San Mames Stadium and end United’s Europa League hopes.

Only a string of outstanding saves by United’s Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea prevented Marcelo Bielsa’s Bilbao side from winning by a bigger margin.

Wayne Rooney gave United an undeserved lead but Fernando Llorente equalised before half-time. The only surprise was that it took Bilbao until the 72nd minute to score the second – with Oscar de Marcos sliding a shot in after a lofted pass by Ander Herrera.

Bilbao’s third in the 89th minute was shrouded in controversy. German referee Florian Meyer awarded a free-kick against Patrice Evra after his boot came off. And from the counter-attack, Iker Muniain fired in after De Gea had made another save from De Marcos and Rafael failed to react.

Although Rooney pulled one back from the penalty spot in added time after De Marcus handled Javier Hernandez’s shot, United face a daunting task.

It is the first time in their history they have suffered back-to-back home defeats in Europe – Bilbao’s victory following one by Ajax a fortnight earlier. And in their Champions League group United were held by Basle and Benfica, meaning they have won only one of their five home games in Europe this season.

On top of that, they have also crashed three times at home domestically, twice in the Premier League and to Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup.

This game had to be good to live up to the first meeting between the clubs in United’s first season in Europe back in 1957, when Sir Matt Busby’s side were beaten 5-3 in a quarter-final first leg on a snowy pitch in Bilbao.

And thanks to Bilbao’s skill, passing and attacking verve, it was a great watch for the neutral, if not United’s suffering fans.

In 1957, United won the return leg 3-0 in a game played at Manchester City’s Maine Road ground because floodlights had not yet been installed at Old Trafford. They will have to make a drastic improvement if they are to turn it around this time.

Bilbao brought 7,200 fans from Basque country and they saw centre-forward Llorente underline why Liverpool, among a cluster of clubs, covet him. He showed he is far more than just a target man with some nifty footwork throughout.

Llorente shot just wide after only four minutes and United had a let-off when Chris Smalling pulled Llorente’s shirt and the striker went down in the area. But with Bilbao appealing for a penalty, Meyer awarded a free-kick to Smalling.

And after another scare when Markel Susaeta sent a good chance straight at De Gea, United took the lead after 22 minutes.

Ryan Giggs twice exchanged passes with Javier Hernandez, who sidestepped Javi Martinez to fire in a shot that keeper Gorka Iraizoz pushed into the path of Rooney, who was left with a simple tap-in.

But Bilbao continued to threaten. Llorente sent a header just over after beating Smalling to Susaeta’s cross. And Susaeta then missed the best chance of the half when his lob went wide. Llorente, however, soon levelled with a header.

After the break, De Gea had to make three brilliant saves to prevent Bilbao from taking the lead. The first was from Muniain’s 25-yard shot followed by two from Llorente.

De Marcos added the second after 72 minutes following a superb lofted pass by Herrera, before Muniain scored a late third.

Rooney’s penalty will give United some hope for the away leg. Few will back them on last night’s evidence.


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