Sometimes you just can’t explain sports. Eight years ago, Liverpool ended up finishing second in their Champions League group and fifth in the Premier League table, but ended the season as champions of Europe. The English club edged out Olympiacos in the group stages (on goal difference), then advanced past Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea; all over two legs to reach the Champions League final against AC Milan. Liverpool then went down 3-0 to the Italian giants before a dramatic six-minute spell in the second half leveled the contest that eventually went to extra time and a penalty shoot-out; which Liverpool won 3-2.
Last season, Wigan Athletic won their first-ever FA Cup by defeating Manchester City 1-0 in the Wembley final. But the club never had a chance to fully celebrate the accomplishment because they had an important Premier League match three days later against Arsenal; a match that would determine whether or not the Latics wound remain in the English top flight. Wigan lost the contest 4-1, which meant the club would be officially relegated to the Championship for the 2013-14 season.
How does a club with a roster that isn’t good enough to stay up in the Premiership win English football’s oldest cup competition? How does a club that finished in fifth place in the Premier League win the most coveted title in European football? The truth is there are countless answers to both of these questions.
Circumstances are constantly changing for football clubs: player form, injuries, managerial moves, officiating decisions, field conditions, etc. For Liverpool and Wigan, each match and each competition presented its own unique challenges that needed to be met. Whatever the reasons, the results ended up with ‘failure’ at one end and victory on the other.
That is just how it is in sports sometimes.
Manchester United enter Tuesday’s Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk with fate in their own hands. All United need is a draw and they will finish top of Group A; a loss would see them finish second in the group. While United have been consistent on the European stage, their inconsistency in their domestic campaign has seen the reigning Champions of England fall to ninth place in the Premier League table.
Alarm bells have been ringing around Old Trafford this past week with fingers being pointed in every direction. But despite their domestic issues, United are poised to advance to the last 16 of the Champions League. Go figure.
The issue at hand for Manchester United heading into their match on Tuesday night is the health of key players on the club’s roster. Marouane Fellaini, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling all missed training on Monday. United have been dealing with the absence of Michael Carrick in their midfield for the past five matches, but the loss of Patrice Evra presents the latest challenge for manager David Moyes. He will likely have to replace the French left-back with Alexander Buttner. The young Dutch defender hasn’t seen much playing time this season, but he will need to put in a solid shift against the Ukrainian champions if United are to get the needed result at Old Trafford.
The last time Manchester United played a Champions League match the club had been riding a double-digit unbeaten streak in all competitions. United throttled Bayer Leverkusen 5-0 in Germany, a result which led many fans and football experts to proclaim that the Red Devils had finally returned to their championship form.
Only a few days prior to the match, United had conceded a late goal which saw them finish in a disappointing 2-2 draw against Cardiff City in the Premier League. But the Red Devils were able to put that aside, refocus on the European competition, and ended up with the most lopsided road win in the club’s Champions League history.
That’s just how it is in football. The matches come quickly and teams need to have a short memory with an ability to focus on the task at hand.
For United supporters, the victory over Leverkusen seems like a distant memory following the Red Devil’s draw at Tottenham and two home defeats in the Premier League. But once again United and their fans can’t concern themselves with failures in the league because there is a new challenge in front of them; and that is finishing top of their Champions League group on Tuesday night.
Similar to Liverpool in 2005, will Manchester United finish the campaign as Champions of Europe but fall short of expectations in the Premier League?
“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”- Alexander Graham Bell
For now, United need to focus their collective strength on one thing and that is Shakhtar Donetsk. A win or draw against the Ukrainian side would be like a burst of sunshine through the dark clouds which have been hanging over Manchester these past few days. It would brighten the spirits of everyone involved with the club…
…at least until the next league fixture.