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Alex Ferguson offers no excuses as Manchester United fall

Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Manchester United (Athletic Bilbao win 5-3 on aggregate)

By Ian Herbert at Estadio San Mames

Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Manchester United: The campaign was almost as brief as it was unwelcome and it was most certainly not "enjoyneering", to borrow from the slogan, promoting a Spanish brand of motors, which is a part of the Europa League scene.

The end of an unhappy affair, which felt very much like Manchester United being put out of their misery, frees them to repulse Manchester City's title quest. But the gulf in class on show in both legs of this fixture has left the impression of a club deep in transition.

Gary Neville has written of his difficult early years in Europe with United, learning how unforgiving of errors Europe can be. Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Rafael da Silva will concur with that sentiment and though Sir Alex Ferguson – determined to build up one last group of young players before he goes – said this was a proving ground, it was excruciating for all those men at times.

United have lost more games in their 10-match European campaign than in 28 Premier League games.

"I don't think we can complain about the result," said the United manager. "I hope it is [just a bad year in Europe.] We try to analyse this season against other seasons. It's a bit difficult. I think there is a root [cause] in terms of some of those goals we have lost in these tournaments – they have been pretty poor, so its something we need to analyse, that."

Of the night's many bad moments for Ferguson, the sight of Andoni Iraola sashaying past three of his players who were made to look like training ground dummies, eight minutes into the second half, was perhaps the most punishing. Iraola's subsequent miss was almost beside the point.

Ferguson's acknowledgement that it was time to look towards Wolves on Sunday came just past the hour when, with three goals still needed, he introduced Smalling and then Paul Pogba to continue their education. Within minutes, Smalling's defensive header had been seized upon by Oscar de Marcos and the ball smashed home. Pogba was booked inside 10 minutes.

It was a pretty desperate night, though one that demonstrated in the shape of an Athletic Bilbao side born or trained in Basque country – la cantera is the name of the system – that the concept of a great, locally discovered team which gave Ferguson his class of '92 can still work in Europe.

As a chill mist rolled in from the Rio Nervion, United believed they could find some of the fire and brimstone Bryan Robson showed in this stadium 30 years ago this summer, when he scored within 28 seconds of the start of England's first World Cup game, against France. But the fire crackers and flares issuing off the pavements nearby, two hours before kick-off, were a fairly good metaphor for what was to follow.

Athletic's intensity was quite unremitting, panicking United into recycling the ball further and further back and reducing their options to a square ball across defence for much of the first half. They needed a spark of real invention but none ever looked likely from a midfield which had been expanded to five men.

After 13 minutes the tie should have been put out of reach when Fernando Llorente, back to goal and with a ruthless accuracy which took the United defence out of the picture, steered the ball into the path of Iker Muniain. He smacked a low shot against the right post with David de Gea at his mercy and De Marcos fired the rebound over.

Marcelo Bielsa's side's first goal was exquisite, served up by a 40-yard cross-field ball from Fernando Amorebieta, the trajectory of which was tracked by Llorente as it fell over Rio Ferdinand's shoulder. The striker volleyed home. His work was done and after 39 minutes, with United in need of three goals, he could leave the field to spare his suspect hamstring.

Seconds before Iraola's quicksilver second-half run through the box Cleverley, whom Ferguson has described as one of the best midfielders in Britain, had tried to ignite his own anonymous night with a driving run down the right channel himself. He was comfortably halted by Javi Martinez.

Wayne Rooney, who had offered little more, did not even muster a smile when he punched in United's consolation goal from 20 yards out, 10 minutes before time.

"What we have seen tonight... is a team whose work-rate is higher than anyone else I have seen in Europe and that takes you a long way," Ferguson said of Bilbao.

Their red-and-white carnival lasted deep into the night, though one of the most significant ovations from the home fans came for Ryan Giggs, when he was substituted. It has been quite clear in the past 48 hours that they adore the Welshman here. It is the next generation of his like whom Ferguson needs to find, as he climbs the steep hill back to a place among those who can say they set the continent alight.

Match facts

Substitutes: Athletic Bilbao Toquero (Llorente, 40), Perez (Herrera, 82), San Jose (Muniain, 88). Manchester United Smalling (Ferdinand, 63), Pogba (Carrick, 63), Welbeck (Giggs, 68).

Booked: Athletic Bilbao Susaeta. Manchester United Rafael, Pogba.

Man of the match Llorente. Match rating 8/10.

Possession: Athletic Bilbao 50% Man Utd 50%.

Attempts on target: Athletic Bilbao 5 Man Utd 4.

Referee C Cakir (Tur). Attendance 40,000.

Europa: Last Eight

AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands)

Athletic Bilbao (Spain)

Atletico Madrid (Spain)

Hannover (Germany)

Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine)

Schalke (Germany)

Sporting Lisbon (Portugal)

Valencia (Spain)

Draws to be made today in Nyon, Switzerland

Quarter-finals 29 March & 5 April

Semi-finals 19 & 26 April

Final 9 May (Bucharest)

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