On Wednesday night in Switzerland the impossible happened, the unthinkable became reality, and Manchester United were eliminated from the Champions League group stages after a 2-1 defeat to Basel. Disappointment is an understatement for what is being felt amongst the players and supporters, as the Premier League champions must come to grips with the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal competing in the last 16 of Europe’s top club competition without them. The lack of Champions League football for the remainder of the season will not affect the side’s popularity, but a number of factors will impact on whether or not the Old Trafford team have a successful campaign or not.
There is no hiding the fact that Champions League football is the pinnacle for a team like Manchester United and all the leading European clubs, and elimination from the tournament, especially this early in the competition, is a massive blow. Being drawn in the relatively agreeable Group C alongside Benfica, Basel and newcomers Otelul Galati meant that progression should have been guaranteed well before round six – and even then a draw should have been something United were able to ascertain against Basel; Sir Alex Ferguson could barely hide his disappointment after the result.
United lose out on the pitch as they have went from beaten finalists last term to group stage failures this time round, and off the pitch the vast revenue generated by competing against the continent’s best will represent a dent in the profit and loss account, and potentially Ferguson’s summer transfer budget. Contesting the Europa League is a severe blow to the club’s ego and reputation, and the Old Trafford side will have to play on Thursdays and Sundays now instead of the traditional Wednesdays and Saturdays. The situation is less than ideal.
However, what elimination does guarantee is another step up in the ongoing battle with noisy neighbours Manchester City. Roberto Mancini’s men were also knocked out of the Champions League on Wednesday, and following their third place finish in Group A will join United in the Europa League. Sheik Mansour’s billions and a confidence exuded from the Etihad Stadium has grasped English football this season, and City now threaten to compromise United’s stranglehold over the British game. Both Manchester clubs would have faced tough competition to win the Champions League in the form of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and holders Barcelona, but now enter the Europa League as the two favourites. With the duo the only realistic challengers for the Premier League title after Chelsea and Arsenal’s early season faltering, and paired together in the FA Cup third round, the victors in the battle for superiority in the city are likely to dominate domestic and Europa League honours too .
United still have the ability to win a Premier League and Europa League double, and if they were to do so would look back at 2011-12 as a success despite the failures of this term’s Champions League campaign. However this failure will be made all the more sickening for the Old Trafford faithful should City win this double at their expense.