Sir Alex Ferguson will forever remain an icon at Manchester United. Furthermore, he certainly deserves to be seen as the best coach Britain has ever had and may ever produce.
However, if he is exemplary in terms of his management skills, the same cannot be said about his behaviour toward match officials or Europe’s second biggest club competition – the UEFA Europa League.
The glory of this tournament is in no way comparable to that of the UEFA Champions League. Still, every club that participates in the Europa League ought to respect it. After all, every club football trophy is made of the same thing: silver.
Chelsea did what Fergie should have done
When Chelsea became the first ever Champions League titleholders to finish third in the group stages of the competition, utter disappointment and panic struck Stamford Bridge. No Blues' supporter were expecting to play on Thursdays and see rival teams such as Arsenal and Manchester United enjoy Tuesday and Wednesday night football in Europe.
Di Matteo suffered the sack, Rafael Benitez got appointed as interim manager, and soon, the humiliation of going out of the UEFA Champions League in the first round quickly evaporated under the desire of transforming negativity into positivity.
The Blues had only one new target on the continental stage: to chase the big UEFA Europa League trophy and finish their European adventure on a much better note than any other club that would fail in the 2012/13 Champions League.
Like a boss, Rafael Benitez ignored his critics and managed his assets wisely. Meanwhile, he was under pressure to secure a third-place finish in the English Premier League and defend Chelsea’s FA Cup crown. Benitez narrowly missed out on the latter task but successfully offered his team automatic Champions League tickets for the 2013/14 season. In between time, the ex-Liverpool boss lifted the 2012/13 UEFA Europa League title, and he did it in style.
Rafa made good use of midfielders Frank Lampard and Oscar as well as secret strikers David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic. The Spanish coach also benefited from the remarkable influence of Fernando Torres in the tournament. In unity, Chelsea reverenced the UEFA Europa League trophy and Lady Luck smiled back at them on May 19 at the expense of Portugal’s cursed European adventurers, Benfica.
Ungrateful Ferguson missed out on Europa League glory
Roll back the months, roll back the years and observe what happened in 2011. Manchester United dramatically flopped in the Champions League, allowing this season’s Europa League semi-finalists FC Basel to condemn them to a third-place finish in their table.
“Now we are in a competition I have never been in with Manchester United. It does mean Sundays, right through, and Thursday-Sunday matches. That has to be dealt with. That is our penalty for not qualifying,” Ferguson moaned as the Daily Mail reported in December 2011.
But how is Europa League football a ‘penalty’ for clubs that finish third in the group stages of the Champions League? If you see it that way, you are probably an ungrateful person. First round demotion from the Champions League to the Europa League should actually be seen as getting a second life after death. It is a priceless opportunity to reach the throne of winners at the end of a European season.
Inevitably, Alex Ferguson’s comments drew the attention of UEFA boss Michel Platini. The Frenchman was direct in his criticism of the Manchester United manager:
“The world does not revolve around England. […] You shouldn't criticise the Europa League just because you've played in three Champions League finals [in four seasons].”
Platini added: “The Europa League is a brilliant competition, it's amazing. I know Mr Ferguson would have preferred to be in the Champions League but so would many clubs who don't have that possibility.”
“The point I made about it being a punishment was only in the sense of for 20 years, this club has only thought about the Champions League. We have just thought about winning that European Cup.
“The punishment is the big disappointment of not challenging for it this year, having been in three finals in the last four years. It was not a slight against the Europa League. It is a competition we want to win.”
In truth, Manchester United did not want to sacrifice efforts in the Europa League. Key player Patrice Evra, in all his disillusionment, confessed the actual fact in the aftermath of the Red Devils’ 2011/12 UEFA Champions League group stage exit. He told reporters:
“It's embarrassing to be in the Europa League. I’m not ready for it and the way I feel now, it's Champions League or nothing. It feels like a dream.”
Indeed, Manchester United crashed out in the Europa League round-of-16 to eventual runners-up Athletic Bilbao.
Rafael Benitez has a tip for Alex Ferguson
On Sir Alex Ferguson’s list of rival managers, Rafael Benitez was perhaps the one Fergie rivalled most. And it is that particular man, Rafa, who taught the Old Scot and his Manchester United a great lesson entitled: ‘how to bounce back from a Champions League fiasco to claim silverware in the UEFA Europa League’. Only a humble attitude can acquire you that.
Ferguson's regrets - the end
One this note, I draw a conclusion to my ‘Three big mistakes Ferguson did in his last three seasons’ series. His failure to bounce back against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the 2011 UEFA Champions League, his inability to retort to Manchester City’s 2011 FA Cup success in his last two seasons, and his wrong approach in the 2011/12 UEFA Europa League sum up my take. These were key elements a figure as big as Sir Alex Ferguson should not have missed in his three final seasons at Manchester United.
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