A mesmerising game in the early spring during which Manchester United found the lead but are then submitted to the metronomic talents of a side packed entirely with technically gifted Spaniards. This result might have been a little more palatable had the lesson been delivered by the Spanish opposition Sir Alex Ferguson expects to encounter when the light nights come around.
His team have now won one in five European games here this season and their second defeat threw into context Ferguson's suggestion last month that if his own side now played Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, they would give them a game. Only 24 hours after Lionel Messi had captivated the continent, the gulf between the English and European champions looks vast.
There was a bizarre Cinderella moment towards the end, when United contravened the rule stipulating that a player – Patrice Evra – must be wearing two boots when he is involved in the play. The indirect free-kick awarded, which appears to have been in line with Uefa rules, began a phase of possession which concluded with the Athletic Bilbao's third goal. But this was not a Basque fairy tale. Marcelo Bielsa's side arrived bristling with energy and history – even leaving the team coach was turned into an event at around 7pm – and were simply superior, seizing possession aggressively and driving at United in wave after wave of football which revealed the way that the Argentine coach has wedded the club's historic physical game with his intricacy and tactics.
Ferguson said the Bielsa work ethic he had seen in practice on Wednesday had caught his eye. "They trained for three hours yesterday and still put that effort in today," he said. But Bielsa, who had four staff view DVDs of United's win at Tottenham on the flight over, revealed that it had been rather easier than that: just two hours of work "and to be fair they were steadyish gentlish sessions."
United were sloppy in possession, dreadful in defence and while the manager keeps saying he needs more experience at the back in this competition, he is running so short of options that the decision must now be whether the Premier League or the Europa League is the more important to deploy Rio Ferdinand. Jonny Evans was last night's concession to experience, though he and Chris Smalling offered no deterrent to the imposing presence of Fernando Llorente and his diminutive partner Markel Susaeta. The saviour again was David de Gea, with five outstanding saves.
Llorente is a name which will be doing the rounds for a second successive summer. His 21 goals in 34 games before this suggested a danger and there were certainly easier challenges for Smalling to face, with his head swathed in black bandages as he returned from the deep gash sustained for England last week. He was unstitched in more ways than one. The wound reopened in the first half and he escaped a penalty for a light tug on Llorente's jersey.
The opening goal ran ever further against the run of play than United's first at White Hart Lane last Sunday as Javier Hernandez and Ryan Giggs' neat interchanges of passes on 21 minutes freed the Mexican for a close range shot which Gorka Iraizoz could only push into the path of Wayne Rooney. The striker's tap-in equalled Denis Law's United record of 28 in continental competition though his was not a performance befitting such a comparison.
The only surprise about the equaliser was that the time it took arriving. There was an omen in the pace with which Susaeta left Evans – who is not slow – fixed to the spot, only to place an audacious lob wide. Rafael da Silva was the last man and Evans at fault when Llorente finally stooped to head home.
The controversy about Bilbao's two further goals should not obscure their supremacy. Oscar de Marcos was possibly half a yard offside when Ander Herrera clipped in the pass which he volleyed in clinically. Then Evra fatefully lost his boot. "The ref said to the players that you can't play with the boot off," Ferguson said. "It seemed a bit bizarre because he only moved the ball about three feet."
When an Hernandez shot was handled by De Marcos, Rooney drove home a penalty to give United hope for next Thursday in Spain. They've won five of their 10 knockout ties against Spanish opposition but this one looks less than 50:50.
Man of the match Llorente.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee F Meyer (Ger).