So, once again, Manchester United will be slumming it in the Europa League, one of the world’s biggest clubs consigned to mostly forgettable Thursday nights playing against the lesser lights of the continent.
If ever there was a signal of the team’s decline since the retirement of Alex Ferguson, it’s that United will be featuring in Europe’s oft-derided second-tier competition — the poor relation to the lucrative Champions League — for the third time in the past five seasons.
It’s a record Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich — the game’s major European powers to who United likes to compare itself — wouldn’t countenance.
For United, it’s becoming the norm.
A 3-2 loss to Leipzig on Tuesday confirmed United’s latest early elimination from the Champions League, dropping Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to third place in its group and into the Europa League.
Make it 10 seasons since United has gone past the quarterfinals of the biggest club competition in world soccer, eight of those coming post-Ferguson.
Is there any realistic chance of this run ending under Solskjaer? Not the way he oversaw United’s latest Champions League failure which, again, might have left him on borrowed time.
It was with some relish, even a degree of acceptance, that Solskjaer spoke before the Leipzig match of “making it hard for ourselves” being in United’s DNA.
“That’s been the way ever since I played and that’s a long, long time ago,” said the man who scored United’s stoppage-time winner in the Champions League final in 1999.
So was it any real surprise to see United not just one, but two goals behind against Leipzig after 13 minutes?
And was it any real surprise to see United mount a now-customary fightback in the second half, from 3-0 down to 3-2 in the blink of an eye thanks to goals in a three-minute span from Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba?
It pretty much summed up not just United’s season, but Solskjaer’s time in charge of the club.
His tenure, which will reach two years next week, began midway through the 2018-19 season. It opened with a 17-match run where United only lost once, and was followed by a 12-match run to the end of the season when United won just twice.
This season, the wild fluctuations in performance have been dramatic — whether playing home or away, whether it’s from one week to the next; whether it’s from the first half of games to the second half.
United has won just one of its five home games in the Premier League, and that was against West Bromwich Albion. The team has won all five of its away games, coming from behind in each.
United won its first two group games in the Champions League, against Paris Saint-Germain away and 5-0 over Leipzig at home. The team lost three of its last four.
In 16 matches in the Champions League and Premier League combined, United has conceded the first goal on 10 occasions.
Despite setting up with a five-man defence and a determination to keep it tight early on, Solskjaer’s side conceded against Leipzig inside two minutes.
“Of course we’ve addressed it, of course we have talked about, of course we talked about especially Leipzig and what they would do early on in the game, that we’ll need to manage it,” Solskjaer said, seemingly at a loss to explain what had happened. “We didn’t manage it well enough.”
“We did everything we normally do in preparation,” he added. “With the video meetings, the training sessions, the recovery with all the games we’ve got … The season we are playing and the demands on the players, sometimes it maybe takes them 10 or 15 minutes to get going.”
It’s that 10-15 minutes that has cost United, and not just in a sporting sense. Financially speaking, United will miss out on potential earnings of around 15 to 20 million euros ($18-24 million) — at least — by not playing in the knockout stage.
It’s another hit in the pocket for a club that has been without gate receipts from its 76,000-capacity Old Trafford stadium since March because fans have not been allowed in during the pandemic.
And then there’s the blow to the status of the club that money can’t buy, with United’s name again absent from the last 16 of the Champions League that should read like a who’s who of the European game.
Solskjaer is back under pressure but he has proven resolute, always managing to get a result when he needs it most.
Manchester City — its first team likely fully rested having qualified for the Champions League’s last 16 with two games to spare — visits Old Trafford on Saturday for a derby that Solskjaer has a strong recent record of winning.
It’s time for United, and Solskjaer, to bounce back again.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press