Anyone taking a bet at the start of the season would not have been able to predict how this would all end up. Manchester City and Manchester United kissed goodbye to the Champions League this season, and there were few mitigating factors that they could cite as a defence. Manchester United can point to their injury list and Manchester City can invoke their inexperience, but ultimately both clubs have resources that dwarf almost all others in Europe. Perhaps the group stages have, in recent years, become too one-sided, and this has led to a feeling that English clubs can sleepwalk through to the last sixteen of the competition. Whatever the ultimate conclusions that are reached from the post-match discussion – which is already reaching the point of becoming deafening – what cannot be ignored is that both Manchester City and Manchester United both deserved their exit from Europe tonight.
Manchester United were outplayed in Basel this evening. For all the pressure that they applied after having conceded an early goal in Switzerland, they were unable to create a great deal of note and calling them unlucky after a Basel player thumped the ball against his own crossbar from seven yards out would be stretching the bounds of credibility a little too far. The late consolation goal from Phil Jones, after Basel had doubled their lead with a goal that fell somewhere between sucker-punch and pincer movement, threatened to set up another grandstand finish but, for their huffing and puffing, Manchester United didn’t deserve their place in the next round. One point from six against Basel and just two wins from their six group matches is proof, as if it were needed, of that.
The circumstances at the City Of Manchester Stadium this evening were slightly different. For Manchester City, the damage to their chances of getting through to the next round of the competition had already been done in the form of defeats in Munich and Naples. This evening, they had to beat Bayern Munich and hope that the result of the match between Villareal and Napoli went their way. Bayern did their bit, putting out a team which rested a number of their best players, and City managed a comfortable 2-0 win, but there is a reason why Villareal had lost their previous five matches in this group and, although it took them a long time to get going, Napoli eventually lumbered to life and won with a little to spare. City had performed with some credit in a difficult group, but Bayern were worthy group winners and, although there was little between the two sides, it would be churlish to deny that they deserve their place in the next round, either.
Both clubs, then, go into the Europa League, and it is probably time to go return to consider this most ridiculous of tournament rules. We can all assume with a degree of certainty that there will be some chinking of champagne glasses this evening at the idea of two of England’s biggest clubs dropping into their secondary tournament, but UEFA – and arguably Channel Five, who have first call on the next stage of the competition – are possibly the only people that will benefit from the two sides’ entrance into the competition. There seems no particularly rational reason why the third best clubs in their Champions League groups should receive a second lease of life in the Europa League. It seems unlikely that the two Manchester clubs – who will almost certainly be tussling with each other for the Premier League championship for the rest of the season – will be particularly enamoured with more European football in the continent’s secondary competition, and those clubs that are struggling through the group stages of the Europa League themselves will almost certainly be a little heavier of heart at the idea of having to face either in the latter stages of a tournament that they have had to work very hard in already this season.
For both Manchester City and Manchester United, the pain of defeat will be tempered somewhat by the knowledge that their rivals also managed to fall at the same hurdle. This week, however, has seen a rare victory for the capital city over its muscular northern rival. That London has never produced a Champions League winner is a well-established fact, but London will be England’s only hope of a Champions League win for this season and, although Arsenal have improved since their tepid start to the season and Chelsea have been to the latter stages of the the tournament before, it is difficult at this stage to see either Arsenal or Chelsea winning this competition with the Spanish giants of Real Madrid and Barcelona, the elephants in the Champions League room, waiting at some point, for somebody and other clubs having already impressed as well. Whilst supporters of the London clubs may well be enjoying their schadenfeude this evening. Whether that will last much beyond the next round of the competition is one that they may not wish to dwell upon, though.
Still, for now it seems that domestic football may end up taking precedence for both Manchester United and Manchester City for the rest of this season. For City supporters, who may still be treating winning silverware as something of a novelty after three and a half barren decades, the Europa League may well be a pleasant diversion and a trophy worth winning. Whether either club will through themselves into it with much enthusiasm, however, remains to be seen. This stage of the Champions League will also have a more cosmopolitan feel about it than usual this season, with representatives from nine countries – England, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Russia, Switzerland, France and Cyprus – all taking part in the next round of the competition, and this, no matter what the supporters of Manchester City and Manchester United may be feeling this evening, can only be healthy for European club football.
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