Early Doors

No Springtime in Europe for Manchester

Early Doors

View photo


Joe Hart - clearly a fan of Spinal Tap

Those inside Channel Five will be gutted, but within the corridors of power at UEFA there will be delight after both Manchester clubs crashed out of the Europa League.

The Nyon-based autocrats could hardly have asked for a more ringing endorsement of Europe's secondary competition than to have the Premier League's top two teams crash out to sides whose title ambitions in their own respective leagues are non-existent.

Manchester United lost 2-1 at Athletic Bilbao — currently seventh in La Liga - to go out 5-3 on aggregate. Soon enough, City followed suit despite a thrilling 3-2 win over Sporting LisbonPortugal's fourth-ranked side — succumbing to the away goals rule.

The rather arrogant assumption in some quarters that Bucharest's Arena Nationala playing host to an all-Mancunian final was a foregone conclusion has been well and truly dispelled, and the competition is all the better for that.

The best legacy from English football's leading lights crashing out is hopefully that those who are usually so quick to deride the Europa League - often the same people who barely watch any games in the competition - will have a different impression of it now and for next season.

The early stages are undeniably flabby and can be a grind - Fulham fans who watched their team's campaign kick off in June against Faroese opposition before failing to qualify from Group K will testify to that — and the concept of admitting teams which fall out of the Champions League is inherently flawed, but once the two-legged knockouts kick in there is as much potential for excitement as its more illustrious counterpart.

It was reassuring to see both Manchester sides go all out to try and reach the last eight despite these ties coming at such a pivotal time in the title race, but in the end Alex Ferguson missed perhaps his only chance for a career clean sweep of European competitions and Mancini was denied a step up - albeit an incremental one - from winning the FA Cup last season.

It had not always looked that way, for United at least. Ferguson was ambivalence personified during his pre-match press conference, looking rather deflated as he paid lip service to the challenge of overturning the first-leg deficit at the San Mames, known locally as The Cathedral.

There was the nagging worry that — with half an eye on Sunday's trip to Molineux — he would send out a compromised side to put in a half-hearted performance. Like the plot of The Producers, he could have decided that the most profitable solution to the Europa League conundrum was to preside over an abject failure, ensuring no Springtime for United in Europe.

But in defeat to Athletic for the second time in a week no one can claim it was for the want of trying that United are out of Europe. Ferguson put out a decent team who tried and toiled but, as he put it, were simply second-best over the 180 minutes.

"I don't think we can complain," he said. "In the second half in particular, Bilbao were the better team.

"They have created a cause. Such energy and determination to win football matches is an incredible thing to see. They deserve to win it."

Enough praise was lavished on the Basque side after their victory at Old Trafford in the first leg, perhaps in the general belief that United would still ultimately prevail. And it is worth commending the home fans for the warm appreciation they gave Ryan Giggs as he was withdrawn in the 68th minute of his 903rd appearance — eclipsing Paolo Maldini's record of matches as a one-club man — and also for Wayne Rooney's cracking strike with 10 minutes remaining.

Back in Manchester, not long after the final whistle blew on United's European campaign, City made their own bid for a comeback that would book them a place in the quarter-finals.

After two first-half goals from Sporting — including a cracking free-kick from Matias Fernandez — saw City booed off at half-time, they were faced with 45 minutes to score four goals and progress.

They came so close, too. Sergio Aguero's brace came either side of a Mario Balotelli penalty. There was no greater sign of how much City wanted to complete the comeback than the moody Italian actually breaking into a jog after scoring as he grabbed the ball to put it back in the centre circle.

City's late siege of the Sporting goal led to Joe Hart coming up for a stoppage time corner, a sight which remains, for Early Doors at least, one of the most unique thrills in all of sport. Hart came agonisingly close to completing the last word in comebacks when he stayed up for the second ball into the box and sent a decent header back across his opposite number, Rui Patricio, who just managed to tip the effort wide with the last touch of the game.

Just like at Euro 2004 when Ricardo scored the winning penalty past Paul Robinson in the quarter-final shootout, Portugal's number one broke his English counterpart's heart in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Roberto Mancini praised his players for their second-half effort, and took the blame for the defeat upon his shoulders.

He said: "In the first half we didn't play, but I am the manager and it's not the players' fault, but mine - I probably made a mistake.

"I am proud for the second half because we had a fantastic 45 minutes, but I am very sorry for the players and our supporters because they were fantastic in that second half.

"But I am disappointed in myself, not the players."

And so it has come to pass that Chelsea are the only English club still in European competition at the quarter-final stage of the season - a club without a manager doing something that neither the biggest club nor the richest club in England were able to.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "People say more young home-grown players are now making their mark in the Premier League but unfortunately it is a bit misleading because it is still the 35% figure for starting XIs. If you compare us with Spain, where nearly 80% of the starting XIs in La Liga are Spanish players, you can see the Spanish national coach has twice as many players to choose from. We need to get that 35% figure up to 45%, 55%, and over 60% to give us more of a competitive chance in terms of the depth of choice." — Considering United's exit to Athletic Bilbao, Trevor Brooking's words are very timely.

FOREIGN VIEW: "Given the development of his medical condition, Abidal will undergo a liver transplant in the following weeks. The transplant is an option that has been considered since the beginning of his treatment, one year ago. At the express wish of the player, the club request the utmost respect for the right to privacy and confidentiality." — Barcelona announce that defender Eric Abidal, who played in last season's Champions League final just two months after having a tumour on his liver removed, is set for further surgery.

COMING UP: All sorts of goodies coming to you throughout the day, not least the draws for the latter stages of the Champions League and Europa League (10:00). We will have full previews of this weekend's Premier League and FA Cup clashes while Jim White and Paul Parker will also be delivering their latest columns.

Pitchside Europe will be giving a special preview of the European Match of the Weekend - Sevilla v Barcelona — and The Fantasist will be hosting this week's Fantasy Football webchat.

Follow Early_Doors on Twitter!

View comments (69)