We all wait eagerly as the Champions League cleans out the cobwebs, wipes off the dust from its boots and prepares to restart after a short break. As any soccer fan will tell you, the yardstick by which we rank Europe’s elite is fast becoming the world’s premier soccer competition. The search for Champions League glory is one of the main reasons why teams spend incomprehensible amounts of money on players. However, as we huddle around our television sets to drink in the next round, there’s one thing that seems worth a minor mention. For the first time in 19 years, Manchester United does not feature in this year’s competition.
Now, to the casual observer this might just be one of those things. Clubs go in and out of the Champions League with a surprising regularity, like planes flying in and out of a busy airport. However, some clubs are staples – ever present pillars of the seemingly never ending narrative. With three Champions League trophies, countless appearances in the latter rounds and allegedly the largest fan support in the soccer world, Manchester United would certainly fall under that category. Their absence is especially poignant for United fans like myself, so used to seeing their team compete at this stage. Like food otherwise well prepared but missing salt, the flavor of the Champions League just doesn’t taste the same without them.
A whole generation of fans have grown up watching Sir Alex Ferguson’s swashbuckling, marauding Manchester United storm through the group stages and battle through the latter rounds. For decades they have been an exciting team, throwing caution to the wind with an almost reckless abandon that has endeared them to every soccer connoisseur – inspiring love and hate in equal measure. The media and fans of other teams love to hate them it seems, and Mancunians embrace that hate as a sign of envy and respect. Their illogical triumph in 1999 is a time marker – a victory for the underdog – with a script that Hollywood would have been proud of. Their numerous battles with Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona have been part of the Champions League rhetoric for years. In that context it seems almost a shame that they are not in it.
An argument could even be made that we will never get Manchester United back, at least not as we knew them. After Sir Alex’s departure and with the arrival of David Moyes and then Louis van Gaal, the team have experienced a sharp decline. Their absence from the competition this year should give them a chance to regroup, and judging by their performances this season, they need the time off. In most games they have been poor, epileptic at the back, ponderous in midfield and immobile in attack. If anything it might be a blessing that they are missing out. Seeing them get torn apart by teams that are supposed to be their peers like Real Madrid, Bayern or Barcelona, would be too much for United fans to bear.
However, amidst the despair, there are faint signs of a pulse. For all their ineptitude in this campaign, Manchester United have shown an uncanny ability to win games. After 25 games they sit third on the Premier League table and are through to the sixth round of the FA Cup. In David de Gea, Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria and others, they have some very good individuals that they can build a decent team around. In van Gaal they also have a manager that has proven himself with various clubs in the long-term, even if he is yet to do so this season.
In the end Manchester United fans, so used to seeing their team compete in this stage of the competition, will have to be content with observing from the sidelines. We will watch jealously but with a somewhat amused interest, without the pressure of hoping everyone else loses so that our team can win. The hope is that the team’s absence will be more of a temporary holiday than a Liverpool style exile. Let the games begin.
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