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Remember that time when all was well at Manchester United? When Wayne Rooney could pull on a boot without wincing and an emphatic march toward an English Premier League and Champions League double appeared inevitable?
You should, because it was only a couple of weeks ago. Yet such has been the speed and totality with which United's season has turned sour. Those better days are fading rapidly into an irrelevant and distant memory.
Wednesday night's exit from the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich brought home the very real possibility that the Red Devils will end the season without a major trophy, an unthinkable prospect for virtually the entire campaign.
And so the questions begin.
The dust won't settle any time soon at Old Trafford. The doubts and concerns which had largely existed beneath the surface in recent months will now manifest into demands for action and answers from those at the very top.
The Glazer family, the American tycoons who bought United thanks to hundreds of millions worth of borrowing, could bypass much of the scrutiny over their methods while the team was winning, and looking damn impressive while doing so.
Sure, a few green and gold scarves (colors of the original Newton Heath club which grew into United in the 19th century) were waved around by fans, but while Rooney was dominating and points were being accumulated all was still relatively calm.
Champions League rankings
2. Inter Milan – Jose Mourinho's side can't be discounted and have been great in Europe.
3. Bayern Munich – Keep finding a way to get the job done.
4. Lyon – Probably won't win it all but have a real chance to make the final.
Now though, the Glazers are on the hot seat. Increases in ticket prices combined with a failure to invest heavily in improving the squad has led to discontent, which wouldn't even be abated by a dramatic revival to capture a fourth straight EPL crown.
Last summer United raked in a world record $131 million from selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid, but the corresponding arrivals, Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan, cost only a fraction of that.
Critics of the Glazers insist the Ronaldo money is earmarked for the repayment of loans instead of for reinforcements that the past week has made clear are needed.
Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Edwin Van der Sar are all heading toward the end of their careers and long-term replacements must be sought. More depth is needed too, due to a drastic overreliance on one man, Rooney, and a lack of impetus whenever he is absent or limited by injury.
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson's hands have been tied and he has had to make some tough decisions. More await him. One of the toughest choices was to allow Carlos Tevez to leave and head across town to Manchester City, instead of paying an exorbitant fee to secure him to a long-term contract.
Seeing Tevez run riot for City just a few miles away will sting. Consider how useful the Argentinean would have been, especially at the times when Dimitar Berbatov has struggled and Rooney has been hobbling.
For United to once again stamp its authority next season, the Glazers need to dip their hands into their pockets, but those punishing interest payments could get in the way. Certainly the signs for summer improvements don't look too clever, after Ferguson spoke out on the issue recently.
"No wholesale buying is needed as we have a very good squad that just needs tweaking here and there," said Ferguson. "Looking at potential squad additions is an ongoing process – it is not just confined to a certain time of year – although we obviously don't reveal our plans.
"We have some ideas at the moment but not many players will be joining the club. In any case, I think the transfer market prices have been terribly inflated over the last year."
Ferguson is too proud to admit he can't afford it and too savvy to alienate his owners but his comments spoke volumes.
While the Scot would love to go and splash out on a player like Karim Benzema, who has become unsettled at Real Madrid, he is unlikely to have the requisite funds to do so.
The need for newcomers has not always been obvious this season. Indeed, it has only been at the very highest level where they have come unstuck.
First it was Chelsea last weekend, which came to Old Trafford and strolled to a confident victory that tilted the EPL title race. Then it was Bayern, the old foe, which completed a dramatic comeback Wednesday.
United looks awesome at its best but occasionally suffers from a lack of pace and adaptability. Changes followed the Chelsea game but fresh legs are what is really required. Darren Gibson is a fine young player but he is not really of the quality to be spearheading the midfield in a Champions League quarterfinal.
There was plenty of sparkle and electricity at the beginning of the second leg, primarily from Nani – who scored twice as United surged into a 3-0 lead on the night (4-2 overall).
Such a lead looked to be enough to secure a path through to the semis, but then it all feel apart. Ivica Olic's strike just before the break narrowed the deficit before a brilliant Arjen Robben volley, after Rafael had clumsily gotten himself sent off for United, clinched the spoils for Bayern.
Which all means that Rooney has an ankle to nurse, Ferguson has a lost opportunity to ponder and the fans have some vitriol to vent.
But, most important of all, the Glazers have some numbers to crunch.
Man of the matches
Lionel Messi. Did you really need to ask? Four goals in a 4-1 demolition provided further proof that we are lucky to be watching a true genius at the peak of his powers. Already the comparisons with the all-time greats have started. Frankly, it is hard to argue.
Arjen Robben produced the goods once again for Bayern, with a magnificent volley from the edge of the area to seal a place in the final four. Robben also clinched the round of 16 clash with Fiorentina with a goal and is in spectacular form.
Ferguson sadly showed a complete lack of grace after United's exit, saying the contest turned because the Bayern players urged the referee to send Rafael off – like "typical Germans."
- Wayne Rooney
- Bayern Munich
- Manchester United
- English Premier League