Tuesday 17 October 2017

Manchester United haven't been one of Europe's best for years - so what would be success in the Champions League?

Manchester United haven't hit the heights of Europe's elite for years
Manchester United haven't hit the heights of Europe's elite for years

Mark Critchley

22 seconds is not a particularly long time. It is roughly enough time to sing the chorus of 'Take Me Home, United Road', for Paul Pogba to earn £80.35 of his weekly salary, or to read the entirety of this unnecessarily convoluted introduction. More significantly, it is also the total amount of time that Manchester United have spent living up to their status at the top level of European competition since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement.

When Patrice Evra unexpectedly rifled past Manuel Neuer at the Allianz Arena back in April 2014, David Moyes was just over half an hour away from a Champions League semi-final. United's aggregate lead over holders Bayern Munich lasted a mere fraction of that time. 22 seconds, to be precise, before Mario Mandzukic's leveller from the restart paved the way for Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben to bring the away end back down to earth.

Moyes' wretched domestic campaign meant no Champions League football the following season. His successor Louis van Gaal took United back to the competition, but failed to keep them there with performances every bit as poor as those of the Moyes era leading to an early group stage exit. An equally turgid league campaign brought only qualification for the Europa League, which Jose Mourinho won impressively to reach this year's top table, albeit amid more middling domestic displays.

Before this season then, post-Ferguson United had a grand total of six Champions League appearances that cannot be attributed to the success of the Scot's final side. Six games in elite competition for a club that still holds a claim to being the world's biggest. Even in the context of English achievement, it is a lamentable record.

United are, after all, the Premier League's closest rivals to Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich – the Champions League's three dominant clubs – in terms of stature, scale and spending power. A place in the semi-finals should be the minimum expected in any season, but particularly after consecutive summers of big spending. The worry, however, will be that there are too many others competing for one of the same four places.

Juventus have appeared in two of the last three finals. Atletico Madrid have a track record of reaching the semis. Paris Saint-Germain arguably have to lift their first European Cup to justify their summer of astronomical spending. In the time since United's last appearance at this level, Manchester City have graced the last four too and their appetite is still not satisfied. The room at the top of European football – or more precisely, just below the is becoming more crowded and, having spent so long away from the sharp end of elite competition, United have fallen back into the pack.

Despite describing the Champions League as United's “natural habitat”, Mourinho himself is certainly thinking no further ahead than Tuesday's meeting with Basel, the first of six games in a kind group. “We can see that we can win every match and that is what we are going to try, but to say we in this moment for candidates of this, candidates of that, we are just candidates of winning the match tomorrow,” he said on Monday.

“I think in the Champions League there are four or five teams with an incredible level of quality, experience and know-how. That's what makes the difference.” Whether his squad contains players of such quality, experience and know-how, he did not say. Instead, he concentrated on the disadvantages that English clubs face due to cultural differences. “We have to try to qualify, to try to go to the last 16 and enjoy that special knock-out phase with the best teams in Europe.”

What would constitute success then? To reach the semi-finals would be an achievement, the quarters par for the course. Elimination in the knockout round, regardless of opponent, would be considered a disappointment while to not qualify from the groups would be an abject failure. That is the reality of where United are at. Where United should have been over the last few years is a different question with a different and more uncomfortable answer.

Independent News Service

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