MANCHESTER United have plunged into the Europa League for the second time in five years after a dramatic 3-2 defeat at Wolfsburg ended their participation in the Champions League. Adam Higgins assesses what went wrong for the Reds…
Early elimination from every competition has become a customary acceptance for Manchester United since the curtain came down on the glittering Sir Alex Ferguson era with the Premier League trophy in 2013.
Even after the optimism surrounding their return to this year’s Champions League, their mixed group stage campaign was no different as the Reds prepare for the dreaded drop to the Europa League – where realistically they will be competing at a level which is in tune with their meteoric fall from grace.
A combination of laboured performances, defensive frailties and a lack of ruthlessness when it mattered most was their ultimate downfall in a group which appeared to pose few problems on paper.
Belying the well-documented failure to break down opponents, United produced their most attack-minded display of the season so far in the must-win game at Wolfsburg but were let down by their usually dependable back four as they were made to settle for a third-place finish.
Some will argue this is a disastrous turn of events. For the more sound-minded, it was expected that an average team, who have severed ties with over 20 established first-team players and failed to sufficiently replace them, would struggle at the highest level – and so it has proved.
TIMELINE – The group stage campaign as it unfolded:
How United tumbled out of the tournament:
United’s rich and well-established history as three-time European champions and the memories created in London, Barcelona and Moscow on those unforgettable nights will be cherished for generations to come.
But, despite Louis van Gaal’s confidence that his side could make a lasting impact in this season’s competition, the class of 2015 are a shadow of the team that reached the final for the third time in four years in 2011.
After breezing past Club Brugges in the two-legged play-off, United fans could dare to dream about another exciting European excursion following the year-long sabbatical resulting from the brief and ill-fated David Moyes reign.
While plenty has changed in the scenery at Old Trafford, so has the landscape and quality of Europe’s premier tournament, with United now considered a second-rate team on the continent compared to the likes of perennial winners Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
From the moment Luke Shaw was stretchered off in Eindhoven and their stranglehold against PSV was surrendered, United offered an unconvincing response which suggested their fight to reach the last 16 might be more of a struggle than first anticipated.
Over the six games, United illustrated the good, the bad and the ugly sides of their composition under van Gaal – which was evident in their narrow home win over Wolfsburg when overturning an early deficit and withstanding late pressure to secure a significant result.
Their over-reliance on a multi-million pound teenager has been widely debated but Anthony Martial often provided the awe-inspiring moments which kept United’s hopes alive. The 19-year-old’s first Champions League goal in the Russian capital atoned for his concession of the CSKA penalty and gave United the opportunity to kick on.
Even though Wayne Rooney delivered the knockout blow to CSKA which kept their progress within their own control, the Reds never looked like capitalising.
United had two opportunities to underpin their credentials as a force to be reckoned with and claim the win which would have taken them to the next phase. But, as has been the case in recent times on the big stage, they blew them both.
Their indifferent home record and lack of a prolific scorer has often sparked cause for concern, none more so than after their stalemate against PSV when the familiar tale of woe unravelled.
The patience of United supporters was tested to the limits as, amid complete domination, chance after chance was spurned while van Gaal’s tactics of operating Martial on the left hand side were under close scrutiny.
Emphasising the open nature of Group B, no team had qualified heading into the final round of fixtures, and with the most notable achievement of his tenure on the line, van Gaal rightly described the Wolfsburg clash as the biggest of his tenure thus far.
Although a tough examination was in prospect against the Bundesliga runners-up, boasting a formidable home record, qualification seemed a certainty had United’s old defensive problems not come back to haunt them at the Volkswagen Arena on a night when a solution of sorts was found for their goalscoring worries.
Reminiscent of the soul-destroying defeat in Basel in 2012 which last plunged them into the Europe League, the Reds were guilty of handing the initiative to their hosts – and can now only follow the progress of rivals City with envy as they fall into the second-string competition in February.
Whilst posting a meagre record of two wins, two draws and two defeats, the more alarming fact for United was that Real Madrid scored more goals on matchday six alone – in their 8-0 win over Malmo – than they managed during the entire group stage campaign. While the Reds’ tally of seven goals was identical to the number they conceded.
The back page headlines won’t be kind to van Gaal – nor will large swathes of United’s global fanbase whose patience is wearing thinner with every passing game.
The Dutchman’s own reaction was almost as embarrassing as his side’s shortcomings when insisting the Reds have made progress and it will only be ‘a matter of time’ before they are rubbing shoulders with the elite again.
The reality, however, is a team boosted by £250m of investment should be fulfilling higher standards and, for the first time in his 18-month reign, the former Holland coach has plummetted into the red zone as far as his own vulnerability is concerned.
Before the rigours of Thursday night football can be contemplated, United must contend with a spate of injuries and a busy festive fixture list, starting with an equally challenging trip to the south coast for a first ever Premier League match against Bournemouth this weekend.
Who will they get next?
United could be reunited with some familiar faces and paired with several top-class opponents with European pedigree aplenty in the Europa League round of 32 in February.
Sevilla, currently seventh in La Liga, would definitely fall into the ‘avoid at all costs’ category as they pursue a third successive triumph in the competition.
Meanwhile, across Spain, the likelihood of a meeting with Gary and Phil Neville’s Valencia has increased tenfold after their first game in charge ended in a disappointing defeat to Lyon and, like United, resulted in Champions League explusion. The tantalising prospect of the Nevilles returning to their spiritual Old Trafford home would spice up an occasion which could otherwise be flat.
3 – Manchester United have lost their last three games in the Europa League (1-2 v Ajax, 2-3 & 1-2 v Athletic Club). Desolate.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 10, 2015
A raft of former players could be in action against the Reds depending on the way the draw pans out. Nani and Robin van Persie – deemed surplus to requirements by van Gaal over the summer – are possibly lying in wait with Fenerbache, who were runners-up behind Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s Molde in Celtic’s Europa League group.
Stylish Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who returned to Germany in 2014, may come up against his old employers with Borussia Dortmund but loanee Adnan Januzaj would miss out against his parent club.
Having rediscovered their supremacy as Bayern Munich’s nearest Bundesliga challengers, Thomas Tuchel’s team will provide a stern test given their formidable record on the continent, which includes their 2013 Champions League Final appearance.
The so-called ‘easier’ part of the draw could present United with a two-legged tie against Danish outfit FC Midtjylland, who knocked Southampton out in the play-off round, and Austrian league runners-up Rapid Vienna.
But throw in Ukranian champions Shakhtar Donetsk, last season’s semi-finalists Fiorentina, not to mention the mighty Sporting Lisbon and there is a great deal for the Reds to fear in Monday’s draw.