|Down and out: United’s early exit from the Champions League has turned the focus back on their domestic campaign and rebuilding their injury-hit squad [REUTERS]|
Their shock exit from the UEFA Champions League this week could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Manchester United.
Not only does it allow the Red Devils to concentrate on their domestic campaign, but it will almost certainly force Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand in spending big to secure the creative midfielder that the club so desperately need after the retirement of Paul Scholes.
The disastrous 2-1 defeat at Basel also raised doubts over the readiness of some of Sir Alex’s youngsters to consistently compete at the top level.
Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda – all 22 years old or younger – were part of the sorry cast at St Jakob Park.
Injuries or suspension meant that the likes of Javier Hernandez, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Carrick, Anderson and Tom Cleverley were all unavailable for matchday six as United became the first ever Champions League finalists to be knocked out in the first round of the following season.
As former skipper Roy Keane harshly remarked from the analyst’s chair on British television: “Everybody’s building them up but it’s a reality check for some. I’d be getting hold of some of these lads, saying ‘you’d better buck up your ideas’”.
The European letdown followed some unconvincing performances in English action.
Although the champions have lost just one of their past seven league matches, they had failed to score more than a single goal since October 1 before Saturday’s home game against Wolves.
United are now likely to give the Europa League as much importance as the Carling Cup, from which they were dumped out last week in the quarter-finals by Crystal Palace.
The slightly surreal scenario of both Manchester clubs in Europe’s secondary Cup competition will surely intensify the battle for the English Premier League crown and make it even more of a two-horse race.
For City, their failure to advance to the Champions League knockout stages somehow seems less of a disaster. This goes beyond the impressive way they rounded off the group stages with a 2-0 victory over Bundesliga leaders, Bayern Munich.
The pressure at Eastlands was eased last week when City owner Sheikh Mansour declared that the premiership was the number-one priority.
It would be unimaginable to expect such a statement to come from the management at Old Trafford or even Stamford Bridge where Andre Villas-Boas bought himself some more time with Chelsea’s final day heroics.
The predicted shoot-out between the cross-town rivals for league honours has parallels to the 1967-1968 season when the blue end of Manchester pipped the red side for glory.
City had finished a disappointing 14th the previous campaign as United won their seventh title from Nottingham Forest and Tottenham Hotspur.
|City manager Joe Mercer holds the league trophy aloft after their successful 1968 campaign [GETTY]|
And the following season they seemed on course to defend their crown as they led by four points with four games to go in the days that wins were worth only two points.
But the Citizens reeled in their rivals and clinched the championship with a 4-3 victory at Newcastle United on the last day of the season as the Devils lost 2-0 at Sunderland.
In 1967-68, Man United had the distraction of the European Cup, albeit in an abbreviated, knockout form compared to today’s more demanding Champions League.
They would become the first English team to lift the trophy after beating Benfica in the final at Wembley Stadium.
Brian Kidd, the current assistant manager to Roberto Mancini, scored one of the goals in extra time as Bobby Charlton’s team prevailed 4-1.
As a long-time number-two to Sir Alex Ferguson in the 1990s, Kidd will know all about the resilience of his former boss.
As bleak as things now appear, the Scot will have a plan to turn things around by the time he turns 70 on December 31.
Tough times ahead
From next weekend, United face five games in 17 days. Even though their upcoming opponents are all in the lower half of the table, it will be a stern test of their resolve, given their depleted resources.
If it goes according to plan, their confidence will be restored when their mouth-watering FA Cup third round tie against Manchester City rolls around on January 8.
If not, their hopes could be in tatters by the time Sir Alex can replenish his squad in next month’s transfer window.
With captain Nemanja Vidic added to the growing injury list after being carried off against Basel with a season-ending knee injury, Sir Alex will again have to get it done with smoke, mirrors and magic.
And it won’t be the first time that the gruff Glaswegian delves into his managerial box of tricks.
Keane’s cutting words won’t be lost on his former manager – nor the young charges now contemplating their costly return of one point from two matches against European lightweights Basel in the Champions League.
But it may not be the right time for the famous hairdryer treatment. Instead a morale-boosting “I know you can do it” chat and fatherly arm around the shoulders might be a better recipe for redemption for the greener members of this shell-shocked squad.
Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster and host of Football Fever the world’s first international soccer podcast with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey
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