Bilbao Basque in the glory of Old Trafford masterclass

MANCHESTER UTD 2 vs ATHLETIC BILBAO 3

MANCHESTER UNITED manager Sir Alex Ferguson admitted he would be forced to risk the creaking body of veteran centre-half Rio Ferdinand if his side are to prolong their involvement in the Europa League, following last night’s sobering first leg defeat against Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford.

Managed by reported Chelsea target, the former Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa, Athletic have built a reputation for combining Spanish ingenuity with South American flair and they certainly lived up to their stellar billing here.

An early poacher’s effort from Wayne Rooney was cancelled out by Fernando Llorente’s thumping header before half time and despite David de Gea’s one-man show of defiance in the United goal, Bilbao took what appeared to be a decisive lead in this last 16 tie when Oscar de Marcos and Iker Muniain struck to the delight of the 6,500 travelling fans.

Rooney doubled his tally for the evening from the penalty spot in injury time to offer the Premier League champions hope of progression, but Ferguson conceded he would have to try to find a way of incorporating Ferdinand, 33, rested last night, in next week’s return fixture to patch up a defence that was exposed time and again by the fleet-footed Basques.

“We were well beaten, I have to say they were the better team,” said Ferguson. “I thought our defending wasn’t very good tonight and that kept us on the back foot all the time. Our attacking play was very good at times but Bilbao were the better side.

“We can still win the game. No question. We showed we can make chances against them, but obviously we have to defend better.

“I need to really look and see how we can maybe bring Rio Ferdinand in without disrupting the league programme.”

When Rooney put United ahead after 22 minutes Ferguson might have thought a delicate balancing act would be the last thing required of him in planning for the second leg, but Bilbao’s response was stunning.

Llorente stooped to head his side level a minute before the interval and only the rapidly improving De Gea prevented the visitors taking the lead before De Marcos’s wonderfully executed volley – albeit from an off-side position – in the 72nd minute.

The industrious Muniain added the goal his performance merited when he capitalised on a catalogue of defensive errors to stab past De Gea, but there was still time for Rooney to rifle home a penalty that just about keeps his side in the competition.