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â€¢ ‘We deserved to go out,’ says captain Patrice Evra
â€¢ Athletic Bilbao had ‘better spirit than us’ in Europa League
Patrice Evra had no intention of trying to paper over the cracks. The Frenchman described Manchester United’s early exits from the Champions League and the Europa League as a “disaster” and admitted that they have to win the Premier League title to “save our season”. Anything less than a 20th league championship and Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will finish the campaign without a trophy for the first time in seven years and, almost certainly, endure the sight of Manchester City dancing on their grave.
That is the sobering reality for United after they were eliminated from the Europa League on Thursday after losing 2-1 on the night and 5-3 on aggregate to an outstanding Athletic Bilbao side that outplayed them over the course of 180 minutes. Evra acknowledged that Bilbao thoroughly deserved to go through and admitted that the margin of their victory could have been much wider.
The second leg at San MamÃ©s was, in effect, a 2-1 hammering and signalled the end of a chastening European campaign for United, who failed to get beyond the Champions League group stage for only the second time since the 1994-95 season and lasted only two rounds in the Europa League. The latter is supposed to be a consolation prize for Champions League drop-outs but in United’s case their participation in the competition was only the start of the humiliation.
Bilbao, seventh in La Liga and 33 points behind the Spanish league leaders, Real Madrid, were superior to United in every department, their free-flowing football and extraordinary energy levels exposing the shortcomings that have been evident throughout a European season when United have looked a shadow of the team that reached three of the previous four Champions League finals.
United have lost four of their 10 fixtures in both European competitions and it is worth remembering that two of their three victories came against Otelul Galati, the Romanian side that Ferguson admitted he had never heard of before the Champions League draw was made.
After the Bilbao defeat, the United manager pointed to the poor goals that United have conceded â€“ their defence was breached 15 times across the 10 matches â€“ as one of the reasons for their poor form in Europe, although Evra suggested there were other factors.
The captain questioned whether United had been guilty of complacency â€“ a criticism that could be levelled at Ferguson because of his team selection in the Champions League fixtures â€“ and also suggested, rather damningly, that the players had shown a lack of desire in Europe.
“Of course it is a big disappointment to go out of Europe. From the beginning of this season it has been a disaster, first in the Champions League and now in the Europa League,” the full-back said. “I think we have to tell the truth. We never played well and we deserve to go out. We never played in Europe with the same desire that we showed in the Premier League this season.
“Maybe we were too confident at the beginning of the Champions League. Maybe we were thinking we have the name and we would go through easily, and we ended up going out in Basel. It’s been a bad season for Manchester United in Europe and we can’t disagree with that. We have to be honest with ourselves. We don’t deserve to be in the Champions League or in the Europa League. That’s it.”
It is now a case of the league title or nothing for United. They travel to second-bottom Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday and have the chance to open up a four-point lead over City, who play Chelsea on Wednesday. Evra described the Wolves match as “massive” and one that United have to win “because now the title race becomes a sprint”, although he refused to subscribe to the view that being out of Europe will be a blessing.
“It is not an excuse for Manchester United. A club of this stature has to concentrate and try to win every competition. That is the truth,” Evra said. “But now, yes, we don’t have any choice. We have to focus on the league and if we want to save the season we have to win the league because if we don’t win the league then we would have had a really bad season.”
Bilbao have no chance of doing likewise in La Liga, which says little for the strength of the Premier League on the evidence of the two matches against United. “They deserved to win both games,” Evra said. “And they could have scored more goals. We have to give them a lot of credit. They could go on and reach the final because they play very well and they run everywhere. They have the right spirit â€“ better than us.”