After many months of intense investigative journalism, carried out in secret at great professional and personal risk, the Busby Babe is able to bring you exclusive news that threatens to undermine the fundamental nature of European football. The Champions League, we can sensationally reveal, is not a league at all.
It’s a cup competition!
Yes, really! Sure, it pretends to be a league in the autumn, in the “group stage”, but after that it’s two-legged knockout football all the way. And that means three things. One, somebody’s going to make an idiot out of themselves in a penalty shootout. Two, chaos. League competitions are rigorous investigations into just which team is the best of them all. Cups, though, are far more unpredictable. And as such, three: opportunity. Sometimes, the best teams on make it through to the latter stages. Sometimes, they don’t.
All of which means that Manchester United, who return to the Champions League knockouts tonight for the first time in four seasons, are in with a decent shot at something decent. They aren’t among the very favourites, but they’ve certainly got a place in that group of teams that could win without it being a miracle. And given the state of the club at the moment, we’ve decided that it’s very important that Manchester United do something impressive in this “not a league”. For three reasons.
Well, there’s a 16-point gap at the top of the table. And while it’s pleasant to imagine that City’s beautiful FA Cup collapse against Wigan Athletic will take root, swell, and derail their season in spectacular and highly amusing fashion … it probably won’t. (It might!) It’s very unlikely. (We can hope!) Sorry. (Be great if it did, though!)
But while the league sits at the top of every season’s wishlist, Europe doesn’t come far behind. A victory would be excellent; a deep run acceptable. It may not be coming as quickly or as stylishly as anybody would like, but United are improving under Mourinho. Last season was better than the season that preceded it, and a decent showing in the European knockouts would demonstrate that the trend is continuing.
Also it would be fun. Fun is good. We like fun.
Speaking of Mourinho ... At times, the extent to which United and their manager are conflated is extremely tiresome. Football teams are, well, just that: teams. Collectives. And not everything that every United player does, good or bad, is down to their manager’s masterful or malign influence. When Phil Jones falls in the penalty area, sometimes it’s nobody’s fault but his own.
(Well, and the clown that bought him, and the clown that picked him, and all the clowns that failed to replace him. Still, you take the point.)
But all that acknowledged, Mourinho’s reputation is built on two Champions League triumphs with teams that fought, and functioned, in his image. Neither Porto nor Internazionale were favourites to win the trophy; both overcame those odds with hard work, impressive organisation, and by taking every opportunity that presented itself, be that an incorrect offside call at Old Trafford or a volcano in Iceland. Describing them as lucky rather misses the point, for all cup winners are lucky to some extent. The point is they made the most of that luck.
United, at the moment, don’t quite have that dead-eyed efficiency. Perhaps that’s inevitable in a team that hasn’t quite settled on its best formation or starting lineup; perhaps that lack of certainty is on the manager. But at some point, if this is all going to be a success, a Mourinho team is going to have to emerge. That’s the trade-off that United were making when they appointed him. You get the sulky conspiratorial nonsense, but you also get a football team that squeezes every situation until it squeaks. And situations don’t come squeakier or more squeezable than the Champions League knockouts.
Of course, it’s not just him. Paul Pogba’s dip in form has been hysterically overstated, because players that expensive aren’t allowed to have bad games, but he could really do with a good one. It would be good to see Romelu Lukaku’s strong showing against Huddersfield followed up with another, since nobody’s ever doubted his ability to score against Huddersfield. And then there’s Alexis Sanchez, whose signing looks, from one angle, to be saying “right, let’s give this Champions League a shot”. Get shooting.
Well, it’s been a while. The last time United made it further than the quarter-finals was 2010-11, when they lost to Barcelona in the final. Since then, they’ve been to one quarter-final, made it to the last 16 once, twice been eliminated in the group stage, and gone two seasons without the sweet sweet taste of Gazprom.
This isn’t good enough. The longer United fail to bother the elite of Europe, the more they look like a club whose place at the top table is secured not by their footballing achievements but by the money that they make and spend. Which might be fine for the people that run the thing, but is a little frustrating for anybody that would like to see United involved in the sharp end of the biggest competitions.
Indeed, you could argue that United, since Alex Ferguson departed, have simply not been a serious football team. Instead they’ve been a rich mess, of minimal danger to anybody outside the transfer market. And while the transition out of Ferguson’s management was always going to be a long and complicated process, it has to end at some point. United’s return the Champions League can, if it goes well, be the beginning of that process. If it goes badly, it might just be a reinforcement of the problem.