Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, insisted last night that his side's Europa League hopes are still alive, despite the 3-2 defeat which reflects what he said was a struggle to deal with the cycle of Thursday and Sunday matches
"It's an uphill fight for us," Ferguson said after his side were overwhelmed by Athletic Bilbao, a side fifth in La Liga. "The question is can we win the match? We can win the match over there. We are finding it maybe difficult to marry the games Thursday and Sundays."
Ferguson contested two of Bilbao's goals – justifiably claiming that the second by Oscar de Marcos was offside and complaining about the award of a free-kick prior to Iker Muniain's third goal after Patrice Evra attempted to play with one boot off. Uefa guidelines say that an indirect free-kick should be awarded if a player fails to play with both boots on.
"I think half the team were arguing with the referee for the third goal and got caught short in that respect," Ferguson said. "But our attacking play was pretty good then the second goal put us on the back foot again. If [the second] it was given offside we could have won the game probably – though not deservedly."
Central defender Chris Smalling may be a doubt for United's game with West Bromwich Albion on Sunday after the head wound he suffered on England duty last week opened up again.
Ferguson disclosed in the course of his post-match press conference that he is bemused to have been asked by the Premier League not to discuss the possible appointment of Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp as the next England manager. "You know I got the letter from the [Premier] League asking me not to discuss the England manger's job," he said. "I've no idea [why.]" The League later indicated it has written to all member clubs at Tottenham's request, reminding them and their officials that it is a breach of rules to discuss the employment prospects of managers contracted to one of its clubs.
Ferguson said his opposite number Marcelo Bielsa had "built [Athletic] to press the ball on the pitch – never stop running. The difference is we are playing big competitions all the time."
Bielsa said the tie remained open. "I think it's an indication of how good our opponents are that they didn't need to create too many chances to get two goals," he said. "We probably were better in general play than United but it's a compliment to our opponents and expression of their quality that we could only beat them by a deficit of one."