Thursday, 15 March 2012

Athletic Main Course Humiliates United

By Shane Thomas

Many proclaimed last week's victory for Athletic Club de Bilbao over Manchester United as one of the results of the season so far. I was one of them. Turns out that was just an apertif. For their main course, they welcomed United to their home patch, and didn't just beat them, but dished out a beating.

Their intense pressing, mobile movement and incisive passing were all there from 7 days ago, but after their 3-2 win at Old Trafford, it was clear that the Athletic players knew that there was nothing to fear from the English champions, and performed accordingly. United weren't opponents, but co-conspirators in their own humiliation. United weren't defeated, they were thoroughly embarrassed.
Despite them having a strong chance of winning their 20th league championship, Sir Alex Ferguson will be aware that this current United squad are well below the high standards he expects. He may have experienced many disappointments on the continent in the past, but when was the last time you saw his team debased in Europe? Barcelona in 1994? Real Madrid in 2000 or in 2004? Regardless, it's been a while.

But this result has nothing to do with the red half of Manchester. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What Athletic have given us over the past week has been as good a display of football as I've seen all season. And not just for people like myself who have been watching the game for years. I'd wager that in a generation's time, future football professionals will talk about watching Bilbao vs United as kids, and identify that moment as the day they fell in love with the game. We shouldn't rejoice in United's defeat, we should revel in Athletic's victory.

And how can you not marvel at players like Fernando Llorente, Iker Munian and Andoni Iraola. Llorente's opening goal was arguably the goal of the season, a remarkable cushioned volley from Jon Aurtenetxe's crossfield pass. This was almost surpassed by Iraola's solo effort in the second-half. He may have missed but that can join Pele's miss against Uruguay at the 1970 World Cup as one of the greatest goals never scored.

If anything, it seems mean-spirited to mention that Athletic's finishing was appalling. They could have scored any number of goals, had they not been so profligate. No doubt Llorente departing with an injury was a factor, but they will have to be more ruthless in the latter stages of the competition if tonight isn't as good as it gets for the Basques.

I sincerely hope it isn't. While inconsistent this season in La Liga, they will play Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final, as well as making the last eight of the Europa League. Surely every neutral is dearly hoping they go on to win it. Especially as this team is likely to be broken up soon. The vultures will circle and look to cherry pick the ripest fruits from the Athletic tree. During the game there was a humourous tweet which read, "Let's get the post-game speculation out of the way. ENTIRE BILBAO TEAM LINKED TO PREMIER LEAGUE!" Like many good jokes, it's funny cos' it's true.


- The Premier League chairman, Sir Dave Richards, thought it apposite earlier this week to assert the view that FIFA and UEFA have "stolen" football from England, while declaring that Qatar should allow alcohol to be sold at the 2022 World Cup, because the English and Germans, "like a pint".

By pure kismet, I was watching the Mel Brooks film, "Blazing Saddles" the other night. A movie which gave rise to the aphorism, "frontier gibberish". Wonder what gem Richards will come out with next? "The sheriff is a n...", in fact, I'd better not.

- Last summer, I attended the 3rd day's play of the final Test Match between England and India. I arrived hoping to see "the little master", Sachin Tendulkar in the flesh. I was lucky enough to witness this. The whole stadium applauded the great man as he walked to the crease, and repeated this action as he departed, out for 23.

However, I overlooked Tendulkar's contemporary, Rahul Dravid. While Tendulkar laboured in trying to get his 100th century for India (and continues to do so), Dravid was India's sole ray of light throughout the tour. In the aforementioned day last August, he went on to score 146 not out, in the unfamiliar position of opening the batting.

It summed up Dravid perfectly; players underperforming around him, sacrificing himself for the good of the team. Whether it was batting at the top of the order, keeping wicket for one-day internationals or adjusting his game to the increasing demands to score runs quickly, Dravid was the ultimate round peg that could fit into any square hole.

And now he's retired. Joni Mitchell sung about not knowing what you've got till it's gone. Indian cricket fans are probably finding out how that feels. And so am I. Tendulkar was, and is, a special player, but so was Dravid. I only wish I'd have appreciated it more when I had the chance.

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