Making fun of Manchester United.
It is an opportunity that has been in short supply over the past couple of decades, as the country’s most dominant team has bounced from one success to another, but with a new era ushering in fresh troubles, it is just too tempting for most to pass up right now.
“Be careful if you are driving past Old Trafford this week. A lot of people have been picking up three points there recently.”
While United’s start to the season under David Moyes, the managerial successor to now-retired coaching legend Sir Alex Ferguson, had started in unconvincing fashion, nothing set the alarm bells ringing quite like a pair of back-to-back home defeats last week.
Both Everton and Newcastle ventured to Old Trafford and came away victorious, with United showing a lack of confidence and cohesion that would have been previously unthinkable.
The performances, even more than the results, added to the rumblings of doubt about Moyes’ ability to carry on the 28 years of dynasty-building work left by Ferguson.
When Moyes addressed the media and took full blame upon himself for the decline in standards, many were inclined to agree.
“A Manchester United lamp would make a nice Christmas present. They look great in the middle of the table.”
United hasn't finished outside the top three since the Premier League started in 1992, but after 15 games, the Red Devils are ninth, 13 points adrift of leaders Arsenal and closer to the relegation zone than the summit.
Being mid-table doesn’t quite cut it with either United’s core of fans that stretch across the country in Yankees-like fashion or with the club’s ownership group, the Glazer family.
Leading clubs rely on the monetary influx gained by reaching the Champions League each season and for that a top-four Premier League finish will be needed. For that to happen, United will need to leapfrog a bunch of clubs with intent to bust their way into European soccer’s most glamorous party.
Except that there is one potential out for United if they don’t bully their way into the top four.
Winning the Champions League this season.
“It is so hard to win at Old Trafford. Even Manchester United can’t win there.”
United did win at Old Trafford on Tuesday, a Champions League victory over Shakhtar Donetsk that was far from convincing but did the job of clinching top spot in Group A and a place in the last 16.
With most of Europe’s mightiest teams also likely to win their group, it means they have a chance of avoiding the stiffest of competition when the draw is made.
Unthinkable as it may seem on the surface that United could possibly win this season’s Champions League given their dreadful form, there is a precedent for something like this.
In 2004-05, Liverpool looked decidedly average in the Premier League, losing games to teams including Bolton Wanderers, Birmingham City (twice), Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace.
But in the Champions League, a dream run took them past Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus, Chelsea and finally AC Milan to clinch the trophy in an extraordinary upset.
Chelsea had a similar experience two years ago, managing only sixth place in the Premier League and firing head coach Andre Villas Boas along the way, before interim boss Roberto Di Matteo led a surge to the Champions League title, overcoming Barcelona in the semifinal and beating Bayern Munich – in Munich – in the final.
Whether United can do that is perhaps not a question for now. The overwhelming feeling at Old Trafford on Tuesday was simply one of relief at having stopped the run of home setbacks.
“It was a massive win,” said Phil Jones, who scored the only goal of the game with a 67th minute volley. “We had to bounce back and get the win. We have had a disappointing few weeks and it has been well documented. We have had to pick ourselves up from this and hopefully we can go on some sort of run now.”
To do so, United will still need to play better than this. Shakhtar is a decent team who were trying to keep their own qualifying attempt alive but shouldn’t have been allowed as much space or as many chances as they were afforded.
But one of the beauties (or quirks) of this competition is that it won’t start up again until the mid-point of February and things could look very different by then. If United is indeed completely out of contention in the PL at that point it could find, like others in the past, that the lack of other distractions can be a positive in the Champions League.
Relying on a back door entry to the Champions League is not exactly what was hoped for when Moyes took over at the end of Ferguson’s extraordinary reign. But if United manage to pull it off, the joke will be on everyone else.