from the M.E.N.
The front page of Marca Ė Spainís leading daily sports paper Ė read Ď38,011 Lions against 11 Red Devilsí.
It wasnít quite true, for while Unitedís backing didnít come close to matching the 8,000 Basques who invaded Manchester last week to witness a life-affirming victory, around 1,000 made the journey to the Basque Country. The Reds fans paid £77 for a ticket Ė the most expensive in Unitedís history for a non-final game and enough to sully the otherwise excellent standing of Athletic in most neutral eyes Ė as they entered the lionsí den, otherwise known as Athletic Bilbaoís San Mames.
The Reds spent the day enjoying the sun in Spainís fifth biggest metropolis of almost a million. Some arrived later than expected after the clubís charter flight was delayed for five hours at Manchester airport. They may have missed the United team strolling around the city Ė with David de Gea the star attraction for locals Ė but they still had four hours before the game to see enough of Bilbao to realise that itís a wealthy, handsome city of neat grids, opulent buildings and striking new architecture. They saw a city which was proud to be united behind one club, with red and white Athletic flags fluttering proudly from apartments, shops and offices.
The game was front page news on every newspaper, the headline report on every Basque TV station. One story told of 14 Athletic fans who had tried to sail in a fishing boat to Manchester for the game in 1957. They didnít make it past the Bay of Biscay, but were still heralded as heroes on their return. Bilbao was buzzing with expectation. Could the Lions hold back the champions of England and reach the last eight?
Bilbao has much in common with Manchester and many of the Basques who travelled to Old Trafford last week spoke of a fine time in Englandís north. A football city and the first Iberian city to embrace the industrial revolution, Bilbao suffered badly from the effects of de-industrialisation. Its image was then shattered by separatist-fuelled terrorism, yet it has witnessed a very strong renaissance in the last 15 years. Frank Gehryís aluminium-clad Guggenheim museum is arguably Europeís most impressive new building, the Sir Norman Foster designed metro system effectively a series of works of art. Itís a shame the Manchester-born architect didnít turn his hand to the Metrolink back home. Athletic are part of that renaissance. The San Mames may be known as the Cathedral because itís a place of worship for so many Basques, but Spainís oldest football stadium closes its doors next year as Athletic move to a new 55,300 capacity arena next door.
Despite fraying around the edges, with some awkward sightlines, tight concourses and steel spikes separating different sections, San Mames has long been considered the most British, the most atmospheric Spanish ground. Outside, fans packed the bars and streets long before the match, singing and drinking in a carnival atmosphere in the sun.
Inside, they created a din which only increased when Fernando Llorente gave them the lead after 23 minutes. An Oscar de Marcos goal made it 2-0 and 5-2 on aggregate and not even a late Wayne Rooney strike could disguise how the Reds had been outclassed by the Lions of Bilbao over two legs. What do you think? Have your say.