Well this is a very strange sentence to be writing. Manchester United are out of the Champions League at the group stage. They are out. Eliminated by a side from Switzerland, United fans may console themselves with the fact that City have too fallen at the first hurdle – yet their group was trickier. Their group had the nippy Napoli side and European giants Bayern Munich.
Manchester United, it appears, should have wrapped up their place in the knockout stages far before it got to this stage. Unnecessary draws, mundane performances. A mediocrity has descended upon the red side of Manchester. Yet while the Blue half are prospering domestically, United have found form in the league hard to come by as well as in Europe.
They have been, well, a bit naff as of late.
Firstly, I think it’s about time we praise the Champion’s League group stages. Quite rightly, they are often criticised as predictable, drab affairs – but not Wednesday. An absolutely nail biting game in Switzerland ending in the most grandiose of fashions. Tense goals, last-ditch defending…a welcome change from the old format of scrappy, 1-0 edgy affairs without any of the drama the epic theme tune suggests there will be. Good stuff and hope for a phase of the competition which consistently fails to live up to expectations.
For too long now – despite injuries that is – United have been plodding. And their plodding has cost them dearly. I fail to recall a side that started the season so brightly and have just…faded out. This was a team opening a can of whoop-ass’ on every side at the start of the campaign. This was a team famed for its faster paced play than last year and lauded for its blend of youth and experience. This was a United generation that was said to have been yet another brainchild of Alex Ferguson’s.
What has happened to them in the last few months? What has happened to them since the 6-1 thrashing? A loss of confidence? ‘A team in transition’ said Gareth Southgate. A team in need of a new transition, it seemed to me.
Many United fans were part-hoping, part-begging for a creative midfielder to come to these shores in the summer. Michael Carrick is used as scapegoat when United are being criticised, but he often appears to be immobile and his anonymity is fatal in a midfield that desires a creative spark. At the start of the season the combination of Cleverley and Anderson looked to be promising. As fate would have it, the former suffered an injury and the latter did as well – although Anderson’s performances were becoming less impressive before his period out. United travelled to Switzerland without many key players – yes – but at this stage of the group that excuse is redundant and irrelevant. It should have been sewn up before.
For a competition in which Alex Ferguson has limited time to succeed in as he approaches his 70th birthday – and with it being one that he seems determined to conquer and add to his tally of two medals – there can be no papering over of the cracks. Dave Fox made an excellent point in his piece on Wednesday that if United had gone through, the cracks that are evident would have been covered over. It’s a point this article is based on – United are in need of a breath of fresh air.
Perhaps now the reality of Manchester United’s recent inadequacies will shine on through; without Champions League European nights as the season drones on – without the hectic drama as a distraction from the ongoing slog of the domestic season – well, their campaign seems half-empty in December without the competition they feed off. It seems a bit dank, a bit drab. By January, after the FA Cup match-up against City, United could be fighting on just two fronts (or one depending on whether Alex Ferguson takes the Europa League seriously).
And even if all energies are channelled into the league, can this current crop beat City? We can never write them off: after all, they are Manchester United. They have succeeded in every field, come back from the death on so many occasions. But forgetting that immediate, unequivocal respect for a moment…well I certainly wouldn’t write them off but, equally, I wouldn’t write them on. Perhaps in the new year, when key faces are back or Ferguson decides to add to the squad, United will improve. The transfer window in January may prove pivotal to the rest of their campaign but for now United are lacking in quality, confidence and assurance. Their grasp is loosening.
The unacceptable has happened to purple nose’s troops. If they don’t start playing assertively and confidently again soon – if they don’t use this defeat to stare deeply into the cracks in this side – it could very well be the unfathomable which strikes their domestic endeavours.