Nearly a year on from Manchester United’s humiliation at Barcelona’s hands in the Champions League final and it is now clear that the Reds have not closed the gap on the Catalan side – a statement of the obvious. Yet, ‘closing the gap’ was a familiar refrain in the weeks after the 3-1 Wembley defeat, with the debate among fans and manager centring on how United could recover ground the lost to Pep Guardiola’s outstanding side. But in the 293 days since United capitulated to Barça in such dispiriting fashion the Reds not only failed to catch the four times European Champions, but have gone significantly backwards.
In total United lost four times in European competition this season; knocked out of two separate tournaments on route. But that tells only part of the story in a campaign that saw United perform middling at best on 10 occasions in succession. Indeed, even rare wins in Europe over the past seven months have come with caveats; neither of United’s victories over Romanian debutants Oţelul Galaţi came with any great flair, while the defeat of Ajax in Amsterdam was earned on barely 30 minutes of quality football.
More common, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has plumbed depths of performance in Europe that, thankfully, have not been matched in more than five years. While Old Trafford draws with Benfica and FC Basel were infirm, worse was to come away in Switzerland. Yet, none of those results was a patch on the humiliating thumping handed down by Athletic Bilbao in the past week – a side, albeit talented, that currently lies seventh in La Liga.
It was not, of course, the loss to Bilbao that hurt most this season. Many United fans, mindful of the Premier League challenge from Manchester City ahead, felt a sense of relief that the Reds must no longer go through the Thursday-Sunday Europa routine. It comes to something when United has sunk to that depth - 125 years of proud history discarded in thumping defeat to one of Europe’s second ranked clubs.
More important though, the manner of defeat to the Basques was not only comprehensive, but wilfully lax on United’s part. Both at Old Trafford and Thursday night, in the atmospheric San Mames, there were times when United’s players simply did not care enough. Patrice Evra jogged through the match; Rooney put in the effort only when it suited him; Tom Cleverley strolled around as if taking part in an informal beach knockabout on holiday. The threesome was absolutely not alone in this sin.
In this observation there is no clichéd call for passion. It is a recognition that, at United, there is more than a century of institutional memory. It is more valuable than Thursday’s performance deserved.
“It’s been a disaster in the Champions League and in the Europa League now I think we have to tell the truth – we deserved to go out because we never played with the same desire as when we play in the league,” admitted Evra on Friday, one of the few in the United camp to recognise the catastrophe at hand.
“We can see the difference in the league. We are top of the league and we are more focused, I don’t know why. If we want to save the season we have to win the league. If we don’t win the league, it will be a really bad season.”
There are excuses for failure, of course. Injuries have played a part, but only a part, in United’s capitulation this season. During the Champions League group stages Ferguson’s side suffered for repeated and frequent absences as a full-blown injury crisis kicked in during the late autumn.
Yet, injuries were not the reason that United failed to make it out of the Champions League for the first time since 2005. Complacency from both players and manager on a truly massive scale was the true cause, and both were shameful; it is simply not the United way.
No wonder, then, that Ferguson spent most of Friday praising United’s spirit in the Premier League, drawing focus away from the matter at hand to a title run-in with rivals Manchester City that will consume supporters attention in the coming weeks.
The question now is whether United will learn lessons from a disastrous campaign. Just as Ferguson promised an answer to Barcelona’s superiority last May – and failed – so the club must now learn how to come back from a bottom-feeding campaign; to again compete at the very highest level. After all, the regression has put the lie to Ferguson’s recent claim that United is “not that far away” from Barcelona or Real Madrid’s level.
“There are always lessons to learn from every football match, whether you win or lose,” Sir Alex told Channel 5 immediately after defeat in Spain.
“It’s disappointing more than anything. We haven’t progressed in the Champions League and now we’re out of the Europa League. I think the best team went through. I don’t think we can complain about the result. I think that in the second half in particular Bilbao were the better team.
“What we have seen tonight and last Thursday is a team whose work rate is higher than anyone I have seen in Europe, and that takes you a long way. Apart from the fantastic work rate, they have some good qualities also. It’s not just their work rate getting them where they are at the moment – they’re showing some very good combination football and I think they can go the whole way.”
Indeed, Athletic’s was a brand of attacking, vibrant, and above all, committed football that United supporters can only dream of. In praise of Bilbao Ferguson was generous, but well he might be for it is certainly easier to praise an Athletic side that was better over the tie than any side United has faced, Barcelona aside, in the past two seasons, than address United’s long-running and obvious deficiencies.
One wonders whether spring 2013 will bring a similar debate – will Ferguson and his paymasters recognise decline before it sets in permanently, or offer another river of broken promises.