Manchester United supporters forced to watch the elite from afar again, with no idea of when they’ll be back at the top table
A traumatic week for United fans is about to get underway, which sees their two main rivals play on the biggest stage and threatens to see them make an unwanted cameo in City’s title celebrations
This is going to be a long, hard, week for Manchester United fans – and there’s little they can do about it. One of the three biggest clubs in the world have been unable to reach the last eight of the Champions League in six of the last seven years. The other two, Barcelona and Real Madrid, haven’t failed to reach the last eight in the same time period.
Yet again, the biggest club games in football which come around in April and May will not involve United. The underachievement is consistent.
With no game until next Saturday when they visit Manchester City, United fans have time to contemplate their club’s absence as Juventus host Madrid, Sevilla get their reward for eliminating United by welcoming Bayern Munich, Barcelona play AS Roma and then, the one which no United fan wants to see, Liverpool play Manchester City.
The only positive they can take from the latter encounter is that one of their two biggest rivals will be knocked out of Europe – but which one would be preferable? It depends who you ask, but when both City and Liverpool – and not United – were going for the Premier League in 2014, I was struck by how the overwhelming majority of United supporters didn’t want Liverpool to win. They didn’t – and their run without a league title now exceeds the 26 year one for which they long mocked United.
But Liverpool have five European Cups and City have never reached the final.
“I’ve never seen Liverpool win the league or City win the European Cup and I want it to stay that way,” was the sentiment from one United fan when asked which of the two he wanted to progress to the semi-finals.
Just as United weren’t, Liverpool are not expected to win the Champions League this season. Barcelona and Real Madrid are clearly superior, but City? Pep Guardiola maintains that Barca are still the top dogs because they have Lionel Messi. A similar line could be added for Madrid for whom Cristiano Ronaldo is at his best in big Champions League games, but Guardiola is bound to underplay his team’s chances.
The Catalan’s City side are undeniably excellent, but United fans have been irked by suggestions that City are one of the greatest teams to come out of England – before they’ve won any doubles or trebles.
They have not even won the league yet, but that could happen on Saturday, with a massive seven games to spare – and against United. That could be the greatest moment in Manchester City’s entire 138-year history, lifting the league title at home in front of their main rivals, the rivals they watched win everything year after year, rivals who mocked them for being small, for being bitter, for being obsessed with United. Rivals who hung an odometer from the Stretford End which increased annually to mark another year without a single City trophy. It reached 35 before Roberto Mancini’s side won the FA Cup in 2011.
Rivals who mocked their signings and their propensity to describe City as a “massive club” when their average crowds were 21,000, who mocked City’s chairman wearing Cuban heeled shoes to increase his height, their unproven boasts about having more fans in Manchester, about having taller floodlights than Old Trafford, or the hapless takeover by former player Francis Lee who made extravagant claims about a City resurgence. They were duly relegated.
Now, Manchester City are comfortably the best team in England, though there’s little Manchester about Manchester City. It has taken a decade, but thanks to hundreds of millions invested via the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi, City have become a major football power, in a similar manner to Chelsea – backed by Roman Abramovich’s billions – and PSG, backed by Qatar. They have one European Cup between the three of them, but does anyone think it will still be one in a decade?
It would amuse United fans if their team could stop City winning the title next Saturday, just as it amused City fans when their side beat an expensively assembled United team 5-1 in 1989. United can only resort to blocking tactics, which Jose Mourinho does well.
The Portuguese is right to accentuate the positives of the improvements he’s made at Old Trafford, but few United fans will feel positive this week. Though the form has been positive in 2018, there’s a flatness at a club still reeling from the Sevilla defeat, a listlessness as other teams make headlines and United become a sideshow, with games that don’t really matter in a race for second that some United fans once would have mocked because second place means to lose.
There’s little for United fans to focus on. Even when their team was coming apart under David Moyes, it was compulsive watching. The players, as they fought with each other and rowed internally, did not think it could go on for much longer. And it didn’t.
Even under Louis van Gaal, the man who replaced Moyes, there was intrigue from the uncertainty of what would come next and who would replace him. That man was Mourinho, who kept last season alive with a successful push for the Europa League.
United’s season is not dead, but, once again, Europe’s biggest competition proceeds without them, something that is painfully obvious to their supporters.