Down The Wings

Manchester United Fan Blog

Match Report & Player Ratings: Manchester united 1-1 Athletic Bilbao

(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Facundo Pellistri’s stoppage-time equaliser earned Manchester United a 1-1 draw with ten-man Athletic Club on Sunday afternoon in Dublin, Ireland in what was the Red Devils’ final pre-season fixture ahead of the 2023/24 campaign.

Just over 24 hours after a strong, first team United side fought back to beat RC Lens 3-1 at Old Trafford, Erik ten Hag watched a more experimental, second team side take on a resilient Athletico Bilbao outfit at the Aviva Stadium.

Nico Williams- the younger brother of Bilbao cult hero striker Inaki Williams, also starting- gave the Spanish side the lead around half an hour in, but the advantage was put into jeopardy when Aitor Paredes was shown a red card in the 66th minute for a cynical, last-man challenge on substitute Hannibal Mejbri.

Just as Reds fans were heading for the exits, Harry Maguire nodded the ball into the path of Pellistri who struck home a volley despite being under pressure from a defender to give the United fans something to cheer about in what was the final kick of the game.

How it went down

Jadon Sancho – starting alongside Omari Forson as the only two players to feature in both of the weekend’s games in any capacity- fumbled a big opportunity early on when Pellestri set him in behind, but the Englishman failed to beat Unai Simon with a tame effort straight at the goalkeeper inside four minutes.

The high press from Bilbao poised a few problems for United throughout the first half and was exemplified from the get-go as Ernesto Valverde’s game plan. Valverde is best known for his two-and-a-half-year spell as manager of Barcelona, where his side knocked United out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage in 2018/19.

Pellestri was bemused not to have been awarded a penalty in the 23rd minute when he was bundled over in the box after looking to receive a ball with his back to goal, but the referee waved it away with some suspicion of theatrics from the forward.

Just two minutes later, Athletico looked like they were the ones who had been awarded a penalty when left-back Alvaro Fernandez looked certain to have taken down N. Williams. The referee did not hesitate as he awarded a spot-kick, but remarkably changed his mind and awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box in a matter of seconds. Upon seeing replays, it suggested that the right call was made.

A clumsy error by Maguire allowed the opposition side to take the lead in the 29th minute when he tried to play the ball to 18-year-old Daniel Gore in the midfield. Oihan Sancet slipped in N. Williams, who managed to poke the ball beyond an onrushing Tom Heaton as the ball trickled into the bottom corner to give Zuri-gorriak (The Red and Whites) the lead.

The torrential rain onslaught was perhaps the most entertaining thing to happen in the remainder of the first half, with United responding with no real urgency after going behind and Athletico quite content with their lead.

Donny van de Beek may well have played his final game in the famous red shirt after he was replaced at half-time by Mejbri. Asier Villalibre came on to replace the goal scorer N. Williams for the leaders.

Unai Gomez came on to replace the man who assisted the goal, Sancet, not long before the hour mark, with pieces of action coming few and far between in the early part of the second forty-five.

Jadon Sancho made way for striker Joe Hugill, with Jonny Evans replacing Fernandez to send Victor Lindelof over to play at left-back. Perhaps the most interesting piece of trivia from the occasion is that Evans, now 35, actually scored at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin for United as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men beat the Irish Airtricity League XI 7-1 on the 4th August 2010.

The well-contested half sparked into liveliness when Parades was shown a straight red card for a grab of Mejbri’s waist as the Tunisian looked set to drive towards goal after the culprit had given the ball away. A friendly is a friendly, of course, and some suggested the dismissal was harsh, but there was no arguing with the referee’s call on that one.

Mejbri had a good chance to fire his side level on the volley in the 73rd minute after being picked out in space by Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but he fired over and failed to give Simon too much to think about.

Imanol Garcia and Peru Nolaskoain came on for Iker Muniain and Inigo Lekue, respectively, with former United man Ander Herrera- an FA Cup (2016), Community Shield (2016), League Cup (2017) and Europa League (2017) winner with United- coming on in place of Inigo Ruiz de Galarreta as the Spaniards looked to defend their lead.

Noam Emeran had scored and assisted in the first pre-season game in a 2-0 win over Leeds United a few weeks ago and had not had a minute since then. He was on in place of Gore as the Reds pushed for a leveler.

The defenders were forward for United as Evans looped a header towards the back post, winning a corner, yet it ultimately came to nothing.

The other centre-back up from the defence was a key part in the equaliser, though. Maguire cushioned down a header inside the box to find Pellistri following Wan-Bissaka’s lofted pass, and the Uruguayan winger did everything he needed to do under pressure from a defender, as he drove a bouncing, right-footed volley into the far corner in the 93rd minute to send the 50,238-strong Aviva crowd into wild celebrations as the whistle blew for full-time.

Final Score: Manchester United 1-1 Athletic Club (Pellistri 90+3’) (N. Williams 29’, Parades [red card] 66’)

Player ratings and lineups

Starting XI: Tom Heaton (6), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (7), Harry Maguire (6), Victor Lindelof (6), Alvaro Fernandez (off 64’) (6), Daniel Gore (off 81) (6), Christian Eriksen (6), Donny van de Beek (off 45’) (6), Facundo Pellistri (7), Omari Forson (6), Jadon Sancho (off 64) (6).

Substitutes: Matej Kovar, Tom Wooster, Marc Jurado, Jonny Evans (on 64’) (6), Toby Collyer, Hannibal Mejbri (on 45’) (6), Noam Emeran (on 81’) (6), Joe Hugill (on 64’) (6).

Man of the match

Pellistri was the bright spark in the eyes of many fans from what was hardly a team performance to remember.

The 21-year-old is similar to Alejandro Garnacho in the sense that fans are excited to see him get on the ball and think that something is going to happen when he does so.

He scored a deserved goal in the final game of pre-season that capped off a good few performances from him individually. The question will now remain as to whether or not Ten Hag wants to keep him as a first team asset or loan him out to play more regularly.

He offers something that a lot of United’s current wingers do not, in the sense that his first thought is to assist a teammate and see if they are in a better position rather than just create a chance to shoot. That unselfish side to his game is evident in his performances and was certainly exemplified in the game against Bilbao.

The bigger picture

It is difficult to take too much from the match in Dublin given that it was predominantly a second team. Aside from Wan-Bissaka, Eriksen and Sancho, there was not one player who you would expect to have a chance of starting the opening game of the Premier League season for United on the 14th August.

You would have to now assume that was Van de Beek’s last game for the club after being replaced at half-time, possibly to protect his fitness ahead of a potential transfer. Whether or not Maguire leaves remains to be seen. Youngsters Fernandez and Mejbri are worth keeping an eye on in the coming weeks in relation to their futures after promising loan moves in the Championship last campaign. 

Gore looks set for a Championship loan, as does Hugill, perhaps, but for players like Forson and Emeran, the way forward looks to be in the under-23s next season.

With new signings in the door and a good number of pre-season games played, all attention now turns to that Premier League opener as fans hope to watch their side deliver where it really matters.

What is next?

At some point next week, United are set to play a game behind closed doors. The opposition, stadium location and kick-off time is unknown as of now, though.

This game will set United up for the opening fixture of the 2023/24 Premier League season against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford on Monday 14th August. Kick-off for the occasion is 20:00 (BST).

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