This season’s Premier League title race took an extra twist last night, when both Manchester United and Manchester City were disappointingly dumped out of the Europa League.
And, whilst many in the past have played down the significance of the competition, the results mean both Manchester clubs have to place all of their proverbial eggs in one very big basket.
The Citizens’ away-goals defeat to Sporting Lisbon is perhaps of greatest significance, with Roberto Mancini getting his tactics wrong in last night’s last 16 second leg and paying the price for a very slow start.
Expectation levels are massive at the Etihad Stadium, and whilst the 3-2 win on the night showed great spirit and character, it ultimately ended in defeat against Sporting Lisbon.
Mancini guided City to their first major trophy since 1976 last season, with Carlos Tevez lifting the FA Cup at Wembley after a 1-0 victory over Stoke City.
But, defeat to United in the same competition this term, as well as a semi-final exit in the League Cup against Liverpool, meant that there would be no return to the famous stadium. And, after defeat to Lisbon last night, European success is now off the table.
Having enjoyed huge financial backing since taking over at the club in 2009, qualification for the Champions League is now no longer seen as a success. Only winning the title is likely to be acceptable, and in this crazy sack-happy world we live in, the Italian’s job could potentially be on the line.
Things are slightly different at United, where Sir Alex Ferguson has proved himself over 25 years. Whilst his future is not in doubt, a season without a trophy would be a major failing for the club.
Defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup, plus a shock exit to Crystal Palace in the League Cup, meant domestic silverware would only come in the shape of the league title.
Throw in an early Champions League exit from a group containing Basel and Otelul Galati, followed by the disappointing defeat to Athletic Bilbao, and the problems begin to add up.
The one-point advantage United hold over City is precarious, and with only ten games remaining in the season, neither side can afford to slip-up before their Monday night meeting on April 30th.
Everything suggests that clash will be a title decider, especially when you consider that neither side has anything else to play for this season. There are no other excuses to look for, no additional matches to blame and no pressures from outside of the league.
It’s simply a case of which team is better over the course of what is now a mini-season. And, for the loser, questions should be asked as to why they’ve failed to win a trophy.
Should Ferguson’s job be on the line if it’s a blank season? Some interesting selection choices, particularly in Spain last night, have left many to raise an eyebrow. And, if a manager like Jose Mourinho becomes available in the summer, then one would have to wonder when there would be a better opportunity to make the big change.
For City, it’s all about patience – or lack of it – from the owners. Would second be judged as failure. Given the players at Mancini’s disposal, one can only imagine yes.
And so, for all the Champions League ambitions held at the start of the season, it’s the bread-and-butter of the league that means the most to both Manchester teams in the closing months of the season.
Whilst we would want a bit more interest in Europe, it does make for an intriguing run-in to the season, and a potential blockbuster at the end of April. I can’t wait, but I’m sure the two managers can. The end could be nigh for the unlucky loser.
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