Friday 7 May 2021

Ten years on from Manchester United's last Champions League final..

Ten years ago this month, Manchester United were preparing for a major European final against Spanish opposition.
The tenth anniversary of that match - 28 May 2011 - comes two days after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United, circa 2021, take to the field in Gdansk for a major European final against, yep, Spanish opponents.

The difference being this time, of course, its not Barcelona at Wembley for the Champions League. Rather, Villarreal in Poland for the Europa League. The difference is striking. 

As United revved up to face Pep Guardiola's all-conquering Catalans in the capital, it came off the back of three finals in four seasons. We used to take such luxuries as an annual rite of passage the thought of going so long without scaling such heights again was unthinkable. Ten years without so much as a Champions League semi, never mind a final, would have seemed impossible to comprehend.

If someone had told you back then United would be in a Europa League final in ten years time almost to the day, you'd tell them to lay off the sauce.

Since that day, when even the genius of Sir Alex and his last great side (admittedly one already showing signs of rust) proved powerless to prevent the might of Barcelona winning the cup with the big ears, United have endured something of a love/hate relationship with the greatest and most prestigious competition in the club game.

There have been seven Champions League campaigns in the ten seasons since, but United have only made the quarter finals twice. We've failed to get out the group three times, with two exits at the round of 16 thrown in for good measure. David Moyes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the Reds further in the competition than their illustrious counterparts Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. For most clubs it would be considered indifferent, but for a club of United's size and stature it's a very disappointing recent record. One you could never have foreseen even in the aftermath of that chastening night at Wembley a decade ago. For the record, we don't expect to be winning the thing every season, but neither do we expect such a meek surrender when it comes to a competition held dear by everyone with Manchester United in their hearts. 

For context, several of United's biggest rivals have played in Champions League finals since we were last there, illustrating just how far the club have been allowed to slide. Guardiola had failed to shine in Europe since he so impressively put Sir Alex's men to the sword with that Barcelona side for the ages, but will look to do so again as our nearest and dearest painfully, but perhaps inevitability, broke their duck to go through to a first ever final. Chelsea, themselves looking to recapture the cup with big ears, stand in City's way in their second final since 2011 whilst Liverpool (twice) and even Spurs have all been present on the club game's biggest stage in the intervening years. As the blues of Manchester and west London lock horns in Istanbul on May 29th, it will be the third all-English final in the competition's history. 

The Europa League once seemed akin to a distant planet - alien territory and ground only trodden by the brave and intrepid. Yet the Reds have become unpalatably accustomed to the second tier competition with those seven seasons at the top table interspersed by time occasionally spent in the backwaters, like the time you drunkenly stumble across the smoking area out the back of the nightclub at 2am whilst searching for the exit.

Yet even that has failed to offer solace in these fallow times. We of course won it in 2017 under Mourinho to complete the set of all major honours, but there has been two round of 16 exits and last season's semi-final KO. As Solskjaer attempts to replicate the feat accomplished by his predecessor, you at least get the feeling that United have at least started the long climb back to the summit, looking to scale the heights of 2011.

Whether Solskjaer's United are good enough to exorcise recent demons as we have another crack at the Champions League next term, I'm not so sure. But, ten years on, we're certainly in our best shape than at any other point since we last faced the Spanish inquisition in a major continental final. 

1 comment:

  1. It's a funny old game, Ole's side at this moment in time bore the pants off me.
    My prime occupation whilst watching our side, nodding
    off in front of the telly,(cricket comes to mind)
    We have exactly the same senario after Sir Matt retired, we were totally unprepared for the next step and ended up in the wilderness for 26 years before a league title came our way. Seems the heirarchy at our great club haven't learned a thing.
    I'm sure we'll get there in the end but it's the toss of a coin when ?