Both Manchester giants crashed out of the Europa League tonight in spectacular fashion, leaving England with only one team left playing in a continental competition.
The results will leave fans wondering about the true power of the vaunted and very wealthy Barclays Premier League. Taken on their face, the results signal a decline after an era of reckless overspending at the expense of nurturing talent.
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One has to wonder how much of a toll the intense pressure and rapacious media attention the Premiership enjoys is taxing these teams when they have to face their continental rivals. But also cast an eye to style: English teams (and their media) are more concerned with tackling and crude bravado than tactics and technical play. It is killing them.
It is difficult to express how badly beaten United were tonight. It was comprehensive and it was embarrassing and it was at the hands of an Athletic Bilbao side that looked better in every aspect. In five years, folks might look back at the 2-1 final (5-3 on aggregate) in the record books and think, well, that wasn’t so bad.
They will be dead wrong.
City at least saved some face, winning their match against Sporting 3-2 after conceding twice, but fell on the away-goals tie-breaker after a 3-3 aggregate draw. Make no mistake — they looked like a team that lacked the experience and character to pull off a miracle, but they did at least finish in strong fashion with three goals in 22 minutes.
Whether that is just paper over the cracks is an arguable point.
Both teams now have to concentrate on their death-struggle atop the Premier League table. City, who have bossed the show for much of the season, now sit a point behind after a dismal loss at Swansea. The race could be decided when the two teams meet on April 30 in what is expected to be the defining clash, but both teams now look to have serious weaknesses that have been exposed in the harsh light of Europe.
Let’s start at Old Trafford, where there should be a lot of hand-wringing. United have now fallen out of Europe competitions twice in one season for the first time in recent memory and never looked good enough over the two legs to hang with a fast, thoughtful and tactically astute Athletic side. At the San Mames tonight, United weren’t even allowed to play — they simply had to sit back and wait until Marcelo Bielsa’s side was done ripping them apart.
United have weaknesses everywhere. They looked lousy in the back, with Fernando Llorente, Markel Susaeta and starlet Iker Muniain able to do pretty much whatever they wanted. It was a non-stop barrage on David De Gea, who got no help from Rio Ferdinand (yanked after the hour,) less from Rafael and most damaging of all, had no one above him who could hold the ball to break the pressure.
That failure to hold the ball is United Achilles’ heel. Good teams now know Michael Carrick simply cannot play without coughing up the rock. Paul Scholes has made an inspired comeback for United — but he didn’t play tonight, and if we’re honest it ,would have made no difference. Tom Cleverley was ineffective, Ashley Young was badly exposed defensively on the flank and Wayne Rooney was often stranded.
Rooney’s consolation goal was a thing of beauty, but he couldn’t even celebrate it. The fact is, United has no answer for a swarming and pressing Atheltic that always had three men in a dribbler’s face.
Why, you then ask, are United able to look down on the rest of England’s teams? The answer is that the rest of England’s teams are worse. It’s a sobering thought.
City have woes of their own. Stefan Savic is clearly not the answer in the heart of the defense, and without Vincent Kompany, everyone on the team looks worse. The biggest concern has to be David Silva, who tonight looked like a man out of gas. When he was finally taken off for the far more effective Samir Nasri, it was something of a relief.
City also looked limp for nearly an hour against a professional Sporting side that made the most their chances. They are no great shakes — had this game run another 10 minutes, they have would have completed their collapse — but they did enough over the two legs to expose City as a side that lacks the know-how to get through these kinds of games.
The Sky Blues conceded possession and cheap fouls in equal measure for much of the night, putting in an insipid first half performance that justly saw them two goals down. Where was the confidence or creativity? It seems to have vanished over the past two weeks, and it took a yeoman effort from Aleksandar Kolarov and Sergio Aguero just to haul the team into the game.
If I’m a City fan, I’m starting to worry. I’m starting to wonder if all that money spent really can deliver a title, and whether Roberto Mancini really is the man to guide this bunch of high-priced talent.
But I’d also cast an eye to the thin ranks. Suddenly, City are fielding players like Adam Johnson, David Pizarro, Kolo Toure and the woebegone Savic. This is average stuff at best.
Americans had a much better night with all four of their national teamers going through, generally in impressive fashion. Jozy Altidore’s AZ Alkmaar survived playing nearly the entire game with 10 men, losing 2-1 to Udinese but winning 3-2 on aggregate. Altidore was the lone runner up top and played well after the Dutch side lost Nick Viergever in only the third minute.
More impressive was the show put on by Jermaine Jones at Schalke. He scored the critical goal in the 71st minute to lead the Germans to a 4-1 win and a 4-2 aggregate result. Jones would also assist Klaas-Jan Huntelaar en route to the Dutch marksman’s hat trick and was impossible to contain in a man of the match performance.
Steve Cherundolo’s Hannover glided past Standard Liege 4-0 (6-2 agg) while of course the injured Oguchi Onyewu watched as his Sporting side slipped past City.
Elsewhere, Atletico Madrid coasted in Turkey, beating Besiktas badly. It was 3-0 on the night, 6-1 overall, and no contest. PSV were rarely in it at home against Valencia, getting a 1-1 draw but losing 3-5 overall. The field was rounded out by Metalist Kharkiv, who stunned Olympiakos with two late goals in Greece to win 2-2 on the away goals tiebreaker.