The last time Sir Alex Ferguson’s side failed to make it out of the Champions League group stages all hell broke loose at Old Trafford. Defeated by Benfica at Estádio da Luz, Manchester United finished bottom of Group D on 7 December 2005, avoiding ignominious relegation to the UEFA Cup. Then, as now, the Reds faced, on paper at least, an eminently winnable qualification group. Yet, dropped points against Lille, Villarreal and the Portuguese left Ferguson red faced, and United out of Europe’s premier competition.
The dark clouds of defeat hung not only over United’s European campaign but domestically too. Defeat to Benfica in Lisbon had followed an equally tedious display against Lille in Paris, after which Ferguson had sought – erroneously – to blame the Stade de France pitch for the Reds’ 1-0 loss. Four days earlier, in what many still regard as one of the most humiliating losses in Ferguson’s reign, Middlesbrough hammered United 4-1 at the Riverside.
The manager appeared, on the surface at least, to hold no answers to United’s struggles.
In between Euro defeats the tension between captain Roy Keane and manager Ferguson reached its zenith, with the Irishman effectively sacked on 18 November. Keane, having already voiced his willingness to play elsewhere with a contract due to expire the following summer, went on to name and shame his failing United team-mates in a now infamous MUTV interview. That the Keane and Ferguson had already clashed in pre-season over preparations at a Portuguese training camp only made the midfielder’s express departure all the more inevitable.
The fall out was equally certain, with doom-laden headlines and very public questions about Ferguson’s ability, energy and willingness to turn around United’s apparent decline. After all, failure in Europe during the 2005/6 season capped a relatively barren period for the club. Chelsea captured that season’s title by eight points, and the previous race too, some 12 points ahead of the Reds. Moreover, Arsenal had taken the Premier League in 2003/4, 15 points ahead of Ferguson’s limited side.
Supporter anger, brewing since the Glazer takeover the previous summer, was only exacerbated by United’s football in winter 2005 that was all too often turgid in nature, with Ruud van Nistelrooy often ploughing a lone furrow up front, and Wayne Rooney frequently consigned to a wide role.
No wonder some fans began to express their anger in writing.
“It is an increasingly inescapable conclusion that, unwittingly or otherwise, Ferguson is winding down, a prizefighter who no longer has the stomach or the wit for an admittedly enormous challenge which, once upon a time, he would have fervently inhaled,” wrote United supporting journalist Rob Smyth in the Guardian.
“Like he did with Liverpool. Ferguson’s almost maniacal yearning to “knock Liverpool off their f***ing perch” was arguably the single most important factor in United’s 1990s renaissance. It makes it all the more vicious an irony that, 10 years later, he should knock United off the perch he had made for them through increasingly rank mismanagement.”
Six years on, four Premier League titles and a European trophy later, and Smyth’s expression of frustration has proven embarrassingly wrong. Yet, in the gloom of Euro exit and domestic supersedence, it was not obvious that the groundwork had been done for future success. Smyth’s was not the only voice of concern.
The inevitable question now is whether United, being heavily outspent by Chelsea and Manchester City domestically, and on the verge of European failure, will repeat the trick of 2005/6? Certainly qualification from Group C is not guaranteed. After all, FC Basel gave the Reds a genuine game at Old Trafford, scoring three times in a well-earned draw. In the hot-house atmosphere of St. Jakob-Park in two week’s time the Reds could conceivably fail.
United’s defensive nous on the road ought to earn the draw needed, but few will bet heavily on it. More to the point, the chances of United securing a second round tie against a European heavyweight is high, with Internazionale, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona all likely to top Champions League groups. Unless whipping boys Otelul Galati secure at least a draw at Benfica United cannot top Group C, and the nation’s bookies will weigh the odds in favour of a new year Euro exit.
Yet, if this is to be a season of transition, with the Class of ’92 – save for Ryan Giggs – all now departed, the groundwork for future success is surely more advanced than in winter 2005. True, United then had a young Cristino Ronaldo, whose partnership with Rooney would blossom into a Champions League winning force. But the squad also contained a plethora of dead wood, including Mikael Silvestre, Kieran Richardson, Alan Smith, and Liam Miller.
Ferguson’s concern today is to mould Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, the da Silva brothers and David de Gea into a consistent, long-term, defensive unit, while finding the right blend from his variety of attacking options. However, by far the 69-year-old’s greatest challenge is to find – or buy – a central midfield formula that can compete at the highest level. As it is, mediocrity in the centre of the park is forcing Ferguson to compromise either United’s attacking or defensive cohesion. Too often both.
This concern is not new of course. Ferguson’s failure to adequately replace Keane and then Owen Hargreaves is utterly dumbfounding. Belief that injury-prone rookie Tom Cleverley could carry United’s central midfield alone this season was a glaring strategic error.
In the short-term the Scot will hope, beyond hope, that captain Nemanja Vidic’s return in Switzerland will be accompanied by a fit Rooney. Without the pair, the Reds face a genuine threat of exit. With them, that fear can be postponed to the New Year at least.