That the soccer world’s so surprised at Manchester United’s early elimination from the UEFA Champions League should be the most shocking aspect of the new normal.
Manchester United suffered elimination from the 2015-16 UEFA Champions League on Wednesday. The Red Devils’ 3-2 loss to Wolfsburg, combined with PSV’s 2-1 win over CSKA Moscow, dragged them into third place in Group B and the knockout rounds of the UEFA Europa League — Europe’s second-tier competition.
This latest group-stage exit is Manchester United’s fourth in the last 20 years, but two of them have come in the last four years.
The days when Manchester United could book its place in the quarterfinals or beyond in advance have long since passed. Louis van Gaal couldn’t instantly reverse a slide from the heights of Europe that started under Sir Alex Ferguson and accelerated during David Moyes’ fateful tenure at the Old Trafford.
While we predicted in August Manchester United would advance out of the group because of three other teams’ perceived weaknesses, in doing so we overlooked the scale of decline Manchester United has experienced in recent years.
Of the Premier League’s heavyweights of the moment, Manchester United has gone longest without winning a major trophy. Since United won the Premier League in 2012-13, Manchester City and Chelsea have reigned in the domestic league and Capital One Cup (or Football League Cup), and Arsenal has captured both FA Cups.
Van Gaal has returned the Red Devils to the status of domestic challengers, but they have a long way to go and a lot to prove before we should consider them to be one of English soccer’s standard bearers.
The Dutch tactician willingly admits his young squad remains under construction and sorely lacks world-class players. Whether he and the club’s board of directors will own up to their recruitment and selection mistakes, or demanding fans forgive them remains to be seen.
Manchester United’s mission of winning this season’s FA Cup, Premier League or Europa League has taken on increased significance, following the Champions League exit. The current crop of Red Devils need a trophy to validate the progress they already have made and give them the confidence to pursue future successes with genuine intent.
Until that happens or doesn’t, we only can look backwards and conclude all Manchester United’s recent draws made gauging its true strength a difficult task, but one defeat exposed the Red Devils’ deficiencies … again.
Thumbnail photo via Michael Sohn/The Associated Press