Friday, March 9, 2012

Manchester United v Athletic: Bilbao light up Old Trafford for all sorts of reasons

In fairness, last night’s match between Manchester United wasn’t so much a Europa League fixture as a future Champions League fixture. Manchester United are a staple part of that competition while Bilbao are in contention for a place in the final four of the Spanish League. It is conceivable that with a fair wind and a favourable draw, this could be on our screens again next season, only not on Thursday nights on Channel 5.

It is perhaps understandable to get a little too caught up in the Athletic performance. It was rare to see a team striding the Old Trafford turf so confidently. Players like Martinez, Llorente and the magnificent Muniain are names that are familiar only to followers of continental football and that lack of familiarity may have contributed to the “wow factor” that home makeover TV show presenters like to talk about.

The Athletic supporters were also a credit to their club and added to the big match atmosphere. It would have been impossible for the Basque players not to be inspired by such support.

There is also a certain aura surrounding the Athletic coach, Marcelo Bielsa. The former Chile and Argentina coach is something of a poster boy for a number of thought leaders on football blogs and the Twittersphere. His fundamentalist approach to the game makes him one of the few constants in football and provides a metaphorical, intellectual and ideological mast onto which people can pin their equally metaphorical colours.

The facts are that despite their performances, Athletic lacked the discipline to close out what should have been a tie winning position and although United were at times made to look silly, Oscar De Marcos’ goal was offside and Muniain’s third should have been dealt with very easily by the full back, Rafael. Nevertheless, for a free-to-air UK TV audience used to the more physical virtues of the English game, it was a breath of fresh air and a glimpse of another football reality.

Another underlying theme, detectable on my Twitter timeline at least, was the Premier League v La Liga narrative. This also includes followers of the Spanish game hitting back at critics of that League who think that the domination of Barcelona and Real Madrid diminishes the quality of the other teams. The 'our league is better than your league' narrative is a false construction of commercial broadcasters with a commercial interest in selling TV rights for individual football leagues. The expressions “Best league in the world” and “Great advert for the league” are marketing slogans and as such provide a false or skewed perspective and understanding.

Better to look at a football match as just that. And in the case of Manchester United we saw two good teams playing attacking football in the best traditions of their respective football cultures. Everything else is just hype.

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