Manchester United risk disastrous plight by failing to reach the top four

Manchester United’s 2-0 defeat to Manchester City should have all but ruled the Red Devils out of the race for top four, but as Arsenal and Chelsea keep dishing out lifelines, the last Champions League spot remains firmly up for grabs.

And it may be the most important race in years…

English clubs have often sat out the latter stages of the Champions League in recent times. Prior to this season, we had managed just two semi-finalists since 2012 – as many as this year alone.

It’s a decade since England had such a presence. In 2009 we had three semi-finalists, following an all-English final in 2008. Indeed, English clubs featured in all but one final between 2006 and 2011 – it was almost a given that we’d have representation in the decider of the world’s greatest club competition.

And so as English football once again threatens to dominate following many years of European subservience to the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and serial-winners Real Madrid, you do not want to be the club that misses out.

Manchester United spearheaded the last of England’s finest eras in Europe, appearing in three finals in four years. But this time, currently stranded in sixth place, they are the ones who may suffer most by failing to qualify.

Champions League football, as United embark on their most crucial and risky administration since Alex Ferguson, couldn’t be more important.

It’s too early to judge Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial credentials as both a tactician and a squad builder. He’s the new kid on the block, and so will need all the help he can get dealing in a summer transfer window as part of an elite club for the first time – but this means being a part of Europe’s premier club competition.

This is because Solskjaer cannot yet guarantee a player success by pointing at the trophies he’s won, nor does he possess the gravitas of some managers whose legendary status alone entices players to the club.

The draw of Champions League football would make his first foray into the market – and United’s transition under the Norwegian – a whole lot easier.

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Without it, he must sell the more abstract attraction of the Manchester United brand, the prestige of playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs, and, he hopes, the leverage of high fees and wages.

These can go a long way, but even the Manchester United brand is at risk of being diluted as this year’s successful English sides continue their relentless growth to the point of boasting equal stature.

Manchester City are perhaps the best team in Europe with perhaps the world’s best manager at the helm. Liverpool have always been a massive club and they are going from strength to strength under the popular Jurgen Klopp. Tottenham have just moved into a state of the art 60,000-seater stadium, and are set for another top-three finish.

None of those clubs show any signs of fading. Quite the opposite, each looks more likely to reach even greater heights next year having already achieved a remarkable amount this season, and with greater financial power.

Of course, Arsenal and Chelsea would also suffer massively through failure to qualify for the Champions League, but these are both sides under proven managers, both set to improve on last season’s points tally, both still in Europa League semi-finals. They are clubs on the rise, already one year into rebuilding projects.

United have made no such progress and risk yet another downward turn. Post-Fergie, they were almost let off the hook as English clubs struggled in Europe. Their failure even to qualify resisted comparison with the likes of City and Arsenal, who floundered in the early stages. Now, the contrast is stark.

Because while the likes of City, Spurs and Liverpool have improved enough to lead the way into a shiny new era of English football, United by contrast, look like a club left behind. Stuck in a loop of failed transitions, they still look lost in the absence of their legendary former manager, seemingly incapable of jump-starting even a short period of success, let alone a new dynasty.

Uninspiring, defensive and passive football has dominated their narrative for six years now. So little has changed with millions spent, and now the club is at crossroads with Solskjaer. He simply has to work out for them, and Champions League qualification would give them a massive push in the right direction as they desperately try to build a club that fans can love again.

Fail, and United risk falling even further behind.

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