MAN UNITED 2, ATHLETICO BILBAO 3.
Manchester United must reign in Spain to keep alive their hopes of glory in the Europa League.
If the Reds thought Europe’s lesser competition would be a cake walk after their early elimination from the Champions League, they were sadly mistaken at Old Trafford.
United were lucky to lose by only a one-goal margin as they were ruthlessly taken apart by Athletic Bilbao who ought to have triumphed by a wider margin.
After stumbling past Dutch side Ajax in the last 32, United found Bilbao even more formidable opponents as they lost at home for the second successive European match.
Indeed, United have managed a meagre one win in five home European games this season, and that was against Romanian minnows Otelul Galati.
Sir Alex Ferguson even had no complaints about the defeat admitting his side was second best.
He said: “Bilbao were the better team. Our keeper made four of five terrific saves so it was not the worst result for us.
“We can win the second leg as we showed we can make chances, but we have to defend better.”
United made an uncomfortable start as the Spaniards had by far the better of the opening exchanges.
Wayne Rooney carelessly gave away the ball and, after a break, Fernando Llorente curled a shot just wide of the upright.
United were also fortunate not to concede a penalty when Chris Smalling pulled back Llorente only for German referee Florian Meyer to mysteriously penalise the Bilbao striker.
And it was against the run of play that United stole ahead midway through the half through Rooney. Ryan Giggs released Javier Hernandez whose shot was parried by keeper Gorka Iraizoz and Rooney, following up, fired home his 23rd goal of the season.
Andoni Iraola had a shot deflected narrowly wide and Markel Susaeta saw a lob fly just off target after he was put through on goal and watch another effort hit the side netting as Bilbao held their nerve.
The visitors were rewarded with a 44th minute equaliser when Susaeta crossed from the right for Llorente to head home from eight yards.
If that was to provide a wake-up call for United, that wasn’t the case as Bilbao made an equally positive start to the second period.
Indeed, it took two exceptional saves from David de Gea early in the half to keep out efforts from Iker Muniain and Llorente and ensure United remained on level terms.
De Gea also had to be alert to deny Muniain for a second time after he was put through on goal by Ander Herrera.
United’s failure to heed the warnings finally caused their undoing as Bilbao took a deserved lead in the 72nd minute.
An intricate passing move ended with Susaeta lofting a ball over the United defence for Oscar de Marcos to volley low past de Gea who was finally beaten for a second time.
United were lucky not to concede a third goal in the 83rd minute after a break ended with substitute Gaizka Toquero forcing another acrobatic save from de Gea.
Their luck ran out when Bilbao added a third goal when de Gea could only parry a shot from Oscar de Marcos and Muniain, following up, waltzed past Rafael da Silva to fire high into the roof of the net.
United scored a second goal in stoppage time which reduced the size of the mountain they need to scale in Spain.
There enjoyed fortune, however, as replays clearly showed the handball by Marcos had taken place outside the penalty area.
Rooney scored from the spot to provide United with a glimmer of hope for next Thursday’s return.