Ahead of kick-off on Wednesday I was nervous but I was still entirely confident we would progress to the Champions League Round of 16. I would have preferred not to endure a nervy draw and fancied us to get a win, but it was neither here nor there. Whilst there was some talk of the game falling on the 6th anniversary of the last time we had failed to get out of the group, it didn’t feel within the realms of reality that history could repeat itself.
After the final whistle, the talk of Manchester becoming the new Milan was quickly replaced with jokes about Channel 5 (we will actually be playing on ITV4, meh) and comparison with the teams from London who had progressed though. Whilst there were some blues and reds who could console themselves with the failure of their rivals, it mattered little to me. At some point, I’m sure I’ll find it funny that Sheikh Mansour can’t even buy City success, but all their failure means to me is we’re saved from the unbearable piss taking that would have ensued. Their misery doesn’t soften the blow for our own pain and I am genuinely gutted we failed to get out of the group.
Patrice Evra spoke well on the topic, as he usually does, expressing the feelings of plenty of fans. “We deserve to be out,” he said. “But it is embarrassing to be in the Europa League.” Embarrassing is right. It’s impossible to avoid sounding like a snob or massively spoilt, but that competition is there for those who aren’t good enough for the Champions League and it’s embarrassing we’re lumped in with those second rate sides. APOEL are good enough for the elite competition, so are Napoli and FC Basel, but we’re with Stoke and the like in the bloody Europa League. It’s sickening.
Roy Keane was critical of the younger players on Wednesday and whilst I agreed with a lot of what he said, my initial reaction was to feel defensive of our youngsters. But our former captain doesn’t have any time for sentimentality and when you break it down, De Gea fucked up for the first goal and one of Evans or Smalling should have dealt with the second. I’m not putting blame on their doorstep and we learn more from our failures than our success, but there’s no tinted specs where Keano is concerned and on the night, some of the younger lads didn’t do their job and it cost us.
Keane said the players were letting the manager down and that’s true. The young ones have time to learn but it is the more experienced players, who should have taken the game by the balls and shown urgency from the first whistle, who need to “take a look in the mirror”, as Evra said. Yes, we dominated the game and yes we created enough chances to win it, but there’s no excuse for us not getting a draw. There’s no excuse for Rooney not burying that cross from Nani in the first half. Excruciating.
Essentially though, it’s the games at home we will be left to regret. The FC Basel game at home was the biggest joke of the lot and that is the game that knocked us out. Danny Welbeck put us 2-0 up with less than 20 minutes played but we found ourselves 3-2 down in injury time before Ashley Young drew us level. Joke.
So now we have the Europa League and the only thing that will take the edge off the pain for me is if we field the team we would have used for the League Cup. I’ve heard reds saying that we should go for it, that it would be great for Fergie to win it, but I can’t get my head around that way of thinking at all. Here comes the football snob in me again but who gives a shit about the Europa League? If it was the final tomorrow night, yes, obviously I’d want us to play our strongest team and win it, but the damage that competition could do to us is not worth the benefit. We’re without Nemanja Vidic for the rest of the season now because of one Champions League game, as if we can afford to risk any more of our players in trying to win the Europa League. If we got to the semis, maybe then take it more seriously, as silverware is silverware, but we should rely on our youngsters and fringe players to get us there, and if they can’t, no big deal.
The overriding feeling for me though, and one that is sadly so repetitive and dull, is we would not be in this position if we had brought in the quality central midfielder we’ve been crying out for. The cost of missing out on Champions League football from this point on is reportedly worth £20m. To make you sick, David Silva cost £24m and Juan Mata cost £26m, two players who have been brilliant in the Premier League, yet we wouldn’t splash the cash on a top midfielder. Could we afford to buy one? The answer is we couldn’t afford not to buy one, and our Champions League exit has gone a long way to proving that.
It isn’t so much the transfer fee that apparently held us back but the obsession with keeping the wage bill down. That’s why the likes of John O’Shea and Wes Brown were sold last summer and why Rio Ferdinand will probably be allowed to leave this summer. The best players want the best wages and whilst I love seeing us bring players like De Gea, Jones, Smalling, Cleverley, Welbeck and the Da Silvas in to the first team, that doesn’t mean I don’t want someone top class in the centre of the park, someone who has dozens of Champions League games under their belt, who has played in finals and World Cups. If we can break the bank for Rooney, who’s hardly set the world alight since forcing the club to pay him a small fortune on a weekly basis, then why aren’t we doing the same for a top player in arguably the most important position?
It’s not all doom and gloom though. We’ve got a good squad and we’ve got the best manager. I still think we’ll win the league, even if Vidic’s injury makes that a lot more difficult, and not having the annual Champions League quarter/semi finals to deal with in the last couple of months of the season will help with that. But that’s beside the point. It shouldn’t be either, or, where United are concerned. Cristiano Ronaldo guided us to that brilliant league and European Cup double in 2008 and the £80m we got for him has not been reinvested in to another superstar, regardless of how highly I rate some of the individuals that have been bought since his exit.
If anything positive can come from this it is the wake up call the Glazers and Ferguson need. We must bring in someone special and we must do it as soon as possible, if this season in Europe is to be an anomaly and not a more common occurrence.
We’ll never die.