Manchester United will take no comfort from their premature UEFA Champions League exit, but it at least gives Sir Alex Ferguson a rare opportunity to make a clean sweep of European honours.
When the Premier League champions were drawn with Basle, Benfica and Otelul Galati back in August, few would have thought they would finish anywhere else but top of Group C. But whilst the Romanian minnows were beaten both home and away, the Portuguese side were, as expected, a tougher nut to crack, holding the Reds to a 1-1 draw in Lisbon before earning another point in a 2-2 stalemate at Old Trafford. But it is the two results against Basle which has ultimately cost last season’s beaten finalists a place in the knockout stage.
The Swiss were seconds away from recording a memorable 3-2 win in Manchester in September, until a last-gasp Ashley Young equaliser. Last Wednesday at St Jakob Park a similar share of the spoils would have been enough for United to progress, but a lacklustre performance saw the home side take a ninth minute lead through Marco Streller, before Alex Frei added a second with a little more than five minutes left on the clock. Phil Jones responded in the last minute to make for an exciting finish, but it ultimately proved fruitless as Heiko Vogel’s men held on.
United, who last failed to make the knockout stages back in 2005-06 when they finished bottom of their group, were stunned at the final whistle. Rio Ferdinand revealed the away dressing room in Basle was a scene of ‘devastation’ at fulltime, Nani told how he ‘wept’ at their elimination, Patrice Evra spoke of the ‘embarrassment’ of having to play in the UEFA Europa League, whilst Ferguson himself was left to reflect on the fact he will have no say in the destination of what he believes to be the ‘greatest’ club competition in the world.
How the Reds will approach their European campaign when it resumes next year remains to be seen. Some pundits feels they will treat it in much the same way they do the Carling Cup, but should they also suffer FA Cup disappointment – a trip to neighbours City awaits in the third round – the competition may take on additional importance as the possibility of a season without a trophy would increase. And besides, the Europa League provides Ferguson a chance of creating more history.
Formerly the Uefa Cup, the Scot has enjoyed little success in this tournament in the past. His first taste of the competition came during his time at Aberdeen in 1979-80, when his side were unable to get past West German side Eintracht Frankfurt in the first round. After a year in the European Cup as champions of Scotland, the Dons were back in the Uefa Cup in 1981-82, when they edged past holders Ipswich Town and Romanian side FC Arges Pitesti, before falling in the third round to eventual winners Hamburg. This was the last time Ferguson’s side featured in this tournament during his time at the club, due to their success in the Cup-Winners Cup in 1983 and their failed defence of this trophy the following year and another crack in 1986-87, which was sandwiched in between two campaigns in the European Cup.
When Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in November 1986, English clubs were banned from Europe following the Heysel Stadium disaster the previous May. Had this not been the case, he would have had an opportunity to compete in the Uefa Cup having led United to a second place finish in the old first division in 1987-88. Another runner-up spot was achieved, this time in more heartbreaking fashion, in 1991-92, a year after he won another Cup-Winners Cup, so as the Premier League era began the Reds were entered into the Uefa Cup.
However, after two goalless draws with Torpedo Moscow, the Russians eliminated United at the first hurdle following a 4-3 penalty shoot-out win. Ferguson, though, would go on and deliver a first league title for 26 years that same season, and repeated this achievement the next year. It was 1995-96 when United were back in the Uefa Cup, having featured in two disappointing campaigns in the Champions League, and again their adventure ended before it really began when another Russian side, Rotor Volvograd, progress at Old Trafford on the away-goal rule.
Due to their sensational record in the Premier League over the years, this was the last time United played in European football’s second tournament. Ferguson has, of course, won the biggest trophy of them all on two occasions, memorably in 1999 when he completed the Treble at the Camp Nou, and again in 2008 when his side overcome Chelsea in a Moscow shoot-out. The Scot has become transfixed with adding another Champions League to his honours list, but this is something he will have to wait until May 2013 to now do so following events in Switzerland this week.
In the meantime, United await Friday’s draw when they will enter the unfamiliar territory of the Europa League. Whilst many fans and pundits will treat the competition and its Thursday night fixtures with something bordering on contempt, it does give Ferguson the opportunity to become just the third manager in history to have won all three major European competitions.
German Udo Lattek was the first to achieve this, starting off with the European Cup with Bayern Munich in 1974, then the Uefa Cup with Borussia Monchengladbach five years later, before completing the clean sweep with Barcelona in 1982. Italian legend Giovani Trapattoni followed suit when, having won the Uefa Cup with Juventus in 1977, he went on to win the Cup-Winners Cup with the same side in 1984 before being crowned a European Champion the following year. Now manager of the Irish national side, the 72-year-old also won a further Uefa Cup with the Bianconeri in 1993, two years after he led Internazionale to the same honour.
Ferguson, with his two Champions League successes and two wins in the now-defunct Cup-Winners Cup, has been handed a unique opportunity to join Lattek and Trapattoni. And whilst it may be an opportunity he would rather not have been presented with, it is certainly one worth fulfilling for a manager who could retire having won every major honour he has competed in.
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