AS MANCHESTER United waved goodbye to the Champions League for almost certainly 18 months at least, the reality is dawning on England’s biggest club of the past 20 years that they have now sunk to second-tier status in European football.
It’s a sign of the times at Old Trafford that reaching the quarter-finals, where they lost to Bayern Munich on Wednesday, was widely viewed as the best United could have hoped for this season.
Getting past Bayern was seen by many as an impossible dream, and simply avoiding a hiding from the German champions was something to be grateful for. How things have changed.
From 2008-11, United were the most consistent team on the continent, reaching three finals out of four – winning one of them – while playing some of the most exciting football in the competition. This was the third straight year that the team failed to get past the last eight, and even that came at a stretch after needing a 3-0 second-leg win over Olympiakos to advance from the last 16.
The European malaise set in before David Moyes replaced Sir Alex Ferguson last summer and could last for some time, with the new manager in the early stages of his rebuilding job at Old Trafford.
“Watching the Champions League (on television) next year will be difficult to take,” United midfielder Darren Fletcher said after Wednesday’s 3-1 loss at Bayern, which meant the holders advanced 4-2 on aggregate. “We are used to playing in it all my career. This will be the first time we are not there.
“Hopefully the biggest thing that can do is give you more determination to get back in it. It is the pinnacle of club football and Manchester United need to be in this competition.” A Champions League season without United certainly will be strange – the team has been a mainstay of the competition since 1995-96 – but that is what is almost sure to happen, with Moyes’ side seven points off the top four in the Barclays Premier League with five games remaining.
Limiting their absence to just one year is a priority for Moyes, who doesn’t think it will prevent him attracting big names to the club as he seeks to build a new, competitive side on the home front and in Europe.
“We’re looking to spend the right money on players who are available and it’s not anything to do with Champions League,” said Moyes, who should be granted considerable funds to strengthen his squad in the summer.
“Any players we’ve quietly discussed it with are more than happy to join Manchester United. They know it’s not a long-term thing.”
Even if United do get back in to the Champions League at the first attempt, it’s likely to be a while before the team has the gravitas of old on the European stage.
United played the role of gallant losers against Bayern, conceding possession and relying on the counter-attack like a tournament outsider from eastern Europe playing more in hope than expectation.
At home in the first leg, United had just 26 per cent possession and spent most of the game camped on the edge of their own penalty area. Indeed, nullifying an opponent seemed to suit Moyes, replicating the tactics he often used to great effect at Everton.
“For long periods we made it difficult for them,” he said. Yet, United fans are used to a more attacking approach and will expect much adventure in Moyes’ sides once he establishes himself at Old Trafford, provided he is given time.
They will also expect trophies, something Moyes cannot now offer this season and was unable to deliver in his 11 years at Everton, either.
Having had a first taste of Champions League football, Moyes will have to be content with the Europa League – at best – next season.
Whether it is in the interests of United to be scrapping away in the Champions League’s poor relation is open to debate.
The domestic form of Newcastle and Swansea dipped significantly due to their involvement in the Europa League over the past two years, although United have a much bigger squad to cope with the demands.
It will be a shock to the system playing in Europe on Thursday nights. Then again, things have hardly gone to script in Moyes’ tumultuous first season in charge.