United could not hide behind the talk of catastrophe,
embarrassment and nightmares on Thursday as they faced up to the
grim reality that their early Champions League exit was no more
than their lacklustre performances deserved.
Drawn in what was on paper a lightweight group featuring FC
Basel, Otelul Galati and Benfica, last season's runners-up might
have expected to qualify for the last 16 with games to spare.
Instead a combination of poor home form, youthful
inexperience and soccer's cardinal sin of underestimating your
opponents culminated in the humiliation of a departure from the
elite competition into the second tier Europa League.
"We have to look back at the games at Old Trafford. We've
not done enough to win those games," defender Rio Ferdinand told
MUTV after a 2-1 defeat at Basel on Wednesday sealed their fate
and put the Swiss side through alongside Benfica.
"The manager's always said that if you don't win your home
games you don't deserve to go through. That's the case this
United won only once at home in Group C, a 2-0 victory over
Romanian debutants Galati, in a record that was in contrast to
last season's domestic form at Old Trafford where they dropped
two points on their way to a record 19th English league title.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side only just managed to salvage a 3-3 draw
at home to Basel with a late equaliser, while two defensive
blunders were to blame for a 2-2 draw at home to Benfica.
Defender Patrice Evra urged his team mates to take a long,
hard look at themselves.
"We have to be honest and say we haven't been professional
from the beginning of this competition," local media quoted the
Frenchman as saying.
"I don't know why, but maybe one or two of us have to look
in the mirror and say we can do a lot better than we have done.
"There is always a lesson to be learned because, in the
beginning everyone thought United would finish first in the
group, with the teams we were drawn against.
"It feels like a dream and that I will wake up tomorrow and
we will have qualified. But it is not a dream, it is the reality
and we should have woken up earlier in this competition. We
deserve to be out."
United's website may have tried to dress
things up with a headline "Rio eyes Europa League glory" but
there is going to be nothing glorious about playing on Thursday
nights having watched the big boys on television the day before.
Evra was under no illusion.
"It is embarrassing to be in the Europa League," he said.
"Some players dream of playing for United in any competition and
you have to respect that, but the way I feel now, it is
Champions League or nothing."
Despite United's declaration that they are going to try to
win the Europa League, it is nevertheless likely to take second
place to the Premier League and could offer Ferguson the chance
to give his younger players some more European experience.
The manager has not been afraid to send his youngsters out
on the big stage this season, a move that former United
midfielder Roy Keane, now a television pundit, saw as costly.
"People have talked about the young players - you've had
Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young coming in, everybody
building them up but they've got a lot to do, it's a reality
check for some," he told ITV.
"I'd be getting hold of some of those lads, saying 'you'd
better buck up your ideas.' Their best player tonight [against
Basel] was Ryan Giggs and that sums it up - he's 38, you can't
be depending on him. United got what they deserved."
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