Bielsa's brilliant Bilbao
El Loco, or the Mad One, appears the default nickname attached to some of South America's more eccentric characters, applied to a wide-range of badly-behaved, crowd-pleasing footballers. It is shared by one obsessive Argentine manager. Not all madness involves alcohol and arrests, firearms and flare-ups, and Marcelo Bielsa, who famously took 2000 videos to the 2002 World Cup, left Manchester United looking like a team from the Betamax era.
For Athletic Bilbao, his is a beautiful craziness. This most idiosyncratic of coaches has a futuristic blueprint that turned the Theatre of Dreams into an arena of the unreal. In a season when United have lost 6-1 at Old Trafford, no side has outplayed them on their own patch quite like Athletic Bilbao. In a campaign when United have been abject in Europe, they have never been tortured as excruciatingly or as exquisitely. "I don't think there's any doubt Bilbao were the better team," was Sir Alex Ferguson's understatement off the pitch following his side's underachievement on it.
Normally Barcelona are La Liga's experts in eliminating United, but the baton has been passed from Catalonia to the Basque country. Only a man from Madrid, David de Gea, stood in Bilbao's way. Only he and Wayne Rooney ensured there will be a meaningful match at the San Mames next week.
But the most decorated manager in the business was overcome by perhaps the most dedicated. These are contrasting figures. Stylistically, Ferguson is not a visionary but an entertainer who has found a way to win with unparalleled longevity and relentless consistency. Bielsa does not have the silverware, but has a growing band of disciples with understandable devotion.
This was total football with a twist, passing of perfect precision, played at breakneck speed. Its architect hovered on the touchline, dressed like Brian Clough in a cagoule, crouching like Andre Villas-Boas, managing like Pep Guardiola, but with added impediments. Bielsa does not have Barcelona's budget, nor their scope to recruit whomever they want.
But no team is more aptly named. These Basques represent the city of Bilbao. "By having that principle, it gives them a cause all the time," said Ferguson. "They are fighting for who they are. It's very worthwhile what they do." Meanwhile, no side is more athletic. They never stopped running, swarming forward with interchangeable excellence. There was always an overlap, invariably an option, inevitably a man with the skill to spot it. United were out-thought, outclassed and, in an indictment of Ferguson, outnumbered in the middle. "They overloaded in midfield," said the Scot, who took an hour to rectify that.
There is a temptation to suggest Help the Aged should be contacted, given the cruelty of selecting a footballing pensioner against them in the centre of the pitch. At least Ryan Giggs contributed when United, as has become their wont, took the lead against the run of play.
It was palindrome of a move, constructed at pace as a trio of players surged into the Bilbao box. Rooney found Javier Hernandez who, in turn, moved the ball on to the accelerating Giggs. After the return pass the Mexican's low shot was parried by Gorka Irzaizoz for Rooney to sweep in the rebound.
The lead flattered United. Markel Susaeta accelerated beyond a stationary Jonny Evans to chip De Gea, but missed the post. He redeemed himself by crossing for the excellent Fernando Llorente to level. The striker doubled up as target man and technical talent, far too good a blend for a struggling United defence.
They were spared humiliation by the insurance policy. De Gea denied Llorente and Iker Muniain in an inspired display. It required controversial goals to add justice to the scoreline. After Ander Herrera scooped a pass over the United defence, Oscar de Marcos - offside, according to Ferguson - placed a shot into the far corner. Then Phil Jones' poor header allowed De Marcos to shoot. De Gea parried but, with Rafael da Silva dozing, Muniain stole in to score. Distracted as well as defeated, United were upset that the most reliable member of their slipshod back four, Patrice Evra, had been penalised after losing his boot.
"The referee said to the players you can't play without a boot," Ferguson said. "The real rule is you can but when play stops you have to go off the field." It was a technicality on a night of Bilbao supremacy.
In any case, German referee Florian Mayer allowed United to reduce the deficit as Rooney completed his brace with an injury-time penalty. "It is an indication of how good our opponents are that they did not need to create too many chances to score two goals," said Bielsa, offering a novel slant to United's struggles.
While Bilbao's defence were breached twice, they instigated attack after attack. At their heart was Javi Martinez, stopper and creator in one, as though Xabi Alonso had been redefined as a centre-back. In he and Jones, there were Spanish and English interpretations of young colossuses, one the playmaker, the other the powerhouse. The United man began in midfield and ended at the back, looking raw in either position. His Bilbao counterpart was a model of composure.
It left Ferguson pondering whether to parachute the rested Rio Ferdinand into the Europa League, United looking likely to exit two continental competitions in the space of three months and Bielsa savouring the praise of the manager he has described as the greatest ever.
"It's excellent and admirable when your work is recognised by someone of such importance in the game," he said. It was a night when El Loco was El Hombre at Old Trafford. There are times when the line between madness and genius can be thin, but Bielsa, the scholarly mastermind of Bilbao's brilliance, seems firmly on the right side.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Iker Muniain - Brought energy and excellence to his day job on the wing and wherever else he popped up. In an outstanding team performance, however, it could just as easily have been Llorente, or Martinez, or De Marcos or Herrera, or Susaeta...
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: "The defending was very loose in the first half in particular," Ferguson said. Indeed, it was a match to enhance the reputation of the unused substitute, Ferdinand, but not the four who started at the back. Rafael, in particular, was shocking, and both Da Silvas have regressed last year. The bigger problem, however, is in the middle of defence: there is a lack of leadership when neither Ferdinand nor the long-term absentee Nemanja Vidic plays. In the heart of midfield, Giggs and Jones seemed a strange choice and Michael Carrick, belatedly brought on to restore order, was much missed. But as previous defeats to Spanish sides show, United have long lacked a world-class defensive midfielder.
ATHLETIC BILBAO VERDICT: Superb. Fast and fit, skilful and stylish, they are a side on the up. In the Copa del Rey final, perhaps heading for its Europa League counterpart and progressing up La Liga, they are one of Europe's form teams. It is easy to see why.