Man United’s Champions League exit exposes flaws
Suddenly, when it counted, Manchester United could paper over the cracks no more.
Past success sometimes means giving champion teams the benefit of the doubt when troubled times strike, and so it was with United. Until, that is, Wednesday’s exit from the Champions League at the hands of Swiss side FC Basel.
Needing only to avoid defeat to ensure progress into the knockout phase, something it had achieved in 14 of the previous 16 seasons, Manchester United became Manchester Un-Tied, picked apart at the seams by a team with a payroll that is a mere fraction of its own.
History was made, and United was the fall guy. Never before had a Champions League finalist fallen in the group stage the following year. Never before had a Swiss side reached this point of the competition. And if not never, rarely has United looked so weakened against a European foe that it was expected to brush aside.
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson criticized his players following a defeat to second-tier English team Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup last week, apologizing to fans because the performance did not “look like United.”
Yet, this was even more of a masquerade, with the fire and tenacity usually inherent in the Red Devils strangely missing. Basel, with a task of chilling simplicity – win and you’re in – were the ones with the intensity and drive.
Only nine minutes had passed when the excellent and livewire Xherdan Shaqiri set up Marco Streller for the goal that put Basel in front and in control and allowed its fans at St. Jakob Park to dare to dream.
If the early goal in itself was not disaster enough, worse was to follow. Captain Nemanja Vidic, so often the glue propping together United’s much-maligned defense, rolled his knee horribly and was stretchered off with an injury that looked long-term.
And Basel kept pressing. With six minutes left, the Swiss looked to have wrapped it up when Shaqiri sent over another sweetly struck cross and Alexander Frei added the second goal. United’s late rally – and a messy goal for Phil Jones following a penalty-area scramble – was too little, too late.
Third place in the group means United now goes into the Europa League knockout rounds, but such an outcome will be treated more like an insult than a challenge. In reality, Ferguson would rather be out of Europe altogether.
[ Related: United crash out of Champions League at Basel ]
For United, this misshapen European campaign feels so much worse because the assault on the home front is looking severely shaky. Free-spending cross-town rival Manchester City has turned cash into points in the English Premier League, opening up a five-point gap at the top and remaining undefeated.
City also went out of the Champions League on Wednesday: Despite beating Bayern Munich, its fate already had been taken out of its own hands and was sealed when Napoli won at Villareal to clinch the second Group A qualifying spot.
City also goes into the Europa League, yet both teams will now be primarily focused on the EPL, with the blue side of Manchester attempting to become English champions for the first time since 1968. City’s Euro exit was treated with nowhere near the same level of dismay, both because of the prospect of EPL success and also because it was its first Champions League adventure.
United is a veteran at this, though, and boasts an enviable record. It was a finalist in three of the last four seasons and is perennially listed among the favorite as a matter of course. Now, it is on the outside looking in, as lively new faces like Basel, Cyprus’ APOEL and Russia’s CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg retain dreams of going all the way.
Most likely they won’t, as even with United ousted, the big boys stood tall in the group stages. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich all topped their groups with ease, while Chelsea and Arsenal will be relieved to also have finished first to avoid one of those opponents in the next round.
For United, the veil has been lifted and the inquest will begin. Ferguson tried to deflect the early flak by instead aiming a swipe at his former captain Roy Keane, now an out-of-work manager, who had been critical of his team.
“I don’t know why you bring up a TV critic. That’s nothing to do with it,” Ferguson said. “Roy had an opportunity to prove himself as a manager, too. It’s not an easy job.”
The questions, though, will keep coming. And the cracks in United’s squad and psyche are now plain to see.
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