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Thursday, March 15, 2012
Updated: March 16, 9:41 AM ET
End of line for City, United


One of our contributing writers, Michael Cox, wrote a thought-provoking story about defining success in modern-day football. He touches on how you can spin failure as success, or success as failure. This dynamic is perhaps most noticeable in the Europa League, the unceremonious competition of also-rans that attracts more ridicule than revelry. The only time most fans even bother to pay attention is when their club happens to be in it -- and with both Manchester teams heading into second-leg round of 16 ties on Thursday, the Europa League has been the beneficiary of some extra attention thanks to those clubs' massive fan bases.

But City and United never wanted to be in the Europa League, especially Sir Alex Ferguson's side, given the success it has had in the Champions League over the past many years. So the equation has been quite clear: Win the Premier League and crash out of the Europa League and the season will be considered a smashing success. Find your players celebrating in Bucharest on May 9, but watching your cross-town rival finish first in the Premier League and the past nine months or so will look like time well spent by only those with the most rose-tinted glasses. At least that's probably how most United fans feel; City fans, who are still searching to add to what has been an all-too-barren trophy cabinet, might see this as yet another building year to add to their FA Cup from last season.

Llorente
Fernando Llorente celebrated after scoring a wonder goal against United.

But the Prem was always going to be the priority. You only had to know that when Roberto Mancini publically hoped that United defeated Athletic Bilbao at San Mames so the Red Devils would have to continue to struggle with what, according to most managers, is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest: the dreaded Thursday/Sunday fixture schedule.

Hope you win, and keep up the good work.

Ah, the power of positive (but really negative) thinking: Both Manchester clubs lost in the Europa League on Thursday -- United 5-3 on aggregate and City on away goals with a 3-3 aggregate score to Sporting Lisbon. All the more surprising, no doubt, to the hype machine that had already penciled in City and United in the final -- two sides that would easily crush any supposedly second-tier European competition.

United's adventure at the San Mames started much like its match ended at Old Trafford -- at the mercy of an Athletic Bilbao side that no doubt has opened the eyes of many English football fans who rarely bother to look beyond their tribal loyalties to other leagues, and especially a side that is seventh in La Liga at the moment.

Bilbao struck first on a brilliant piece of football in the 23rd minute. Aurtenetxe delivered a ridiculously perfect long ball of about 50 yards over the top, and one of Spanish football's stars in the marking, Fernando Llorente, volleyed it past David de Gea in the far corner. Rio Ferdinand, perhaps like most of us expecting Llorente to trap and control the ball, stood clueless as Llorente's execution was every bit as impressive as Robin van Persie's two scoring volleys we've seen in the Prem this year.

This goal came after Muniain had hit the woodwork and Oscar De Marcos skied the rebound. In the 65th minute, De Marcos finally took his chance. A cross from Susaeta was miscued by Gaizka Toquero (on for Llorente in the 40th minute), and De Marcos bashed the ball -- which took a deflection off Rafael -- into the back of the net.

In all, the Basque side checked every box: work-rate, skill on the ball, passing, technique and, most importantly, goals. United looked flat at times, and was outplayed again. Only Wayne Rooney was able to get anything out of the game, an extraordinary hit from distance in the 80th minute. It was at that point that Ferguson and his players received the ultimate backhanded compliment: polite applause for Rooney's strike, a "courtesy" typically only extended by fans of a far superior side. And that's exactly what Bilbao was. It pressed, attacked and took United out of its comfort zone. The scoreline could have been worse, as Susaeta and Toquero could have added to the tally (in the latter's case, Gol TV's Ray Hudson perfectly summed up the botched header as "toilet-bowl finishing").

Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney was one of the few bright spots for United.

United failed to get behind the Bilbao high line, and only brought on the pacy Danny Welbeck in the second half when time was running out. And Chicharito -- who loves to play off the shoulder of the last defender -- remained on the bench. The arrival of Paul Pogba, who made a hash of a tackle to earn a yellow card, in the 63rd minute signaled that the Red Devils' focus was squarely focused on Wolves this weekend.

City, on the other hand, had us believing that it could turn the improbable into the possible, much the way Arsenal had its supporters dreaming of an amazing comeback against AC Milan in the Champions League.

Going into the match, Mancini had said he wanted to win both the Europa League and the Premier League -- and with such a payroll and depth of squad at his disposal, that seemed reasonable -- but any hopes of a double seemed to evaporate by the end of the first half. With City missing Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany, Mancini had to make do with Kolo Toure and Stefan Savic (who's having a torrid time in his first season at the club). And it all started to go downhill in the 33rd minute, when Mario Balotelli chased after Emiliano Insua and needlessly fouled him. Matias Fernandez's ensuing free kick was a thing of beauty, curling past the wall into the upper right corner.

Sporting struck again in the 40th minute, thanks to more atrocious defending by City. Bruno Pereirinha blew by Aleksandar Kolarov, David Silva failed to help out, and both Savic and Kolo Toure lost their way before Pereirinha passed the ball across the face of goal for the easiest of finishes for Ricky van Wolfswinkel.

Aguero
Sergio Aguero was a major catalyst to City's attempted comeback, scoring twice and earning a penalty.

But it was the show of emotion and effort on the part of City that this game will be remembered for. Mancini made three substitiutions in the second half -- Nigel de Jong for Adam Johnson in the 46th minute, Edin Dzeko for David Pizarro in the 55th and Samir Nasri for Silva, who was off the pace on the night, in the 66th minute -- and all of the moves had the cummulative effect of helping City regain its mojo, with Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and Nasri especially brilliant at times.

In the 60th minute, Yaya Toure played in Aguero, and with Anderson Polga ball watching, the Argentinian scored City's first goal. He also was responsible for creating the next one in the 75th minute when he charged into the box and Renato Neto slid in with the tackle. There didn't appear to be much contact, but referee Tom Harald Hagen pointed to the spot. From there, Balotelli cooly slotted the ball home.

The Sky Blues continued to press and close down space, as Sporting appeared to engage in a series of time-wasting "injuries" -- Pereirinha clutching his arm in the 78th minute, with De Jong comically trying to pick him up, only for Pereirinha to be cured almost immediately after he finally came off the pitch to receive treatment.

Joe Hart
Joe Hart's attempted header almost saved City at the death against Sporting.

Then, amazingly, City pulled back yet one more goal, in the 82nd minute when Aguero got on the end of Dzeko's headed ball from a corner. Soon after, Sporting keeper Rui Patricio went down with an "injury." There would be more time wasting, though the yellow card Balotelli earned for protesting the theatrics in stoppage time were mistimed, as that incident was caused by Micah Richards' boot hitting Xandao on the head. Overall, though, Sporting was a bit disgraceful in its behavior, and Balotelli -- while he should have remained cool -- was understandably boiling over.

The match ended on a surreal sight: City keeper Joe Hart almost saving the day, as he got on the end of a De Jong long ball, only to head his shot wide of the mark.

In the face of tremendous pressure, Sporting almost collapsed -- and if the match had gone on for a few more minutes, it very well could have lost. This was a dramatic conclusion to both Manchester teams' Europa League adventures. But while one team went meekly into the night against a better and stronger opponent, another fought admirably for at least 45-plus minutes. Unfortunately for Mancini & Co., with Sporting scoring two unanswered goals in the first half, time was always going to be their worst enemy.

Now City will have all the time in the world -- along with United -- to focus on the Premier League title race. Maybe Mancini really didn't care about the Europa League, or maybe he did. Based on what we saw at the Etihad, his players answered that question.