United fail motivation test

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When Sir Alex Ferguson sits down to list the reasons behind Manchester United's exit from the Champions League, it's likely he'll be lost for words.

As with previous seasons in the competition, United had been handed a routine draw as they looked to avenge their Wembley final defeat to Barcelona in May.

In every season bar one since English clubs were re-entered into European competition, United had escaped from the first group stage in an impeccable manner.

Their one slip up, in 2005, which saw them defeated by Benfica in their final group game, came during a genuine transition period for Ferguson's men, with Chelsea and Arsenal dominating domestically and the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo proving to be rarely influential.

But despite the loss of Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, who made just 26 starts between them last season, Edwin Van der Sar and Owen Hargreaves, the same can't be levelled at this currently United side, who after claiming their 12th Premier League title last season, were showing the sort of form at the start of this term for many to tip them to pose a real challenge to Barca. That same team can't be flagging already.

The purchases of Phil Jones and David de Gea was Ferguson merely tinkering with United's squad, while the addition of Ashley Young was just that, an addition.

So why is a squad, which sent hearts racing at the start of the season, now starring down the barrel of Europe's basement competition; the Europa League?

It would be fair to say that United have been ravaged with injuries from the very start of the season.

Only Nani and Jones have played a part in all six of United's group stage matches, using 24 players during the group phase, two more than in their entire Barclays Premier League campaign so far.

However, the quality of opposition should mean players of United's quality should sweep aside most teams with ease.

The problems lies with the performances of the players, and their motivation to go the whole nine yards in a group stage that is littered with miss-matches, an argument not strengthened by United's struggles, or by the number of meaningful games on matchday six.

You need only take a look at Lyon's second-half blitz against pointless Dinamo Zagreb, which is currently being investigated by a French gambling watchdog, to see that this stage of the formerly known European Cup is starting to lose its credibility.

The ease of United's previous campaigns has meant the group stage has become something of a side-show, with any genuine threat not coming until the quarter-final stage.

The lethargic performances from United's players has suggested they expect an easy ride at this stage of the competition, and instead of sitting back and letting them dominate, like teams gone before may have done, in Basel and Benfica, they've found two sides willing to take advantage of their lacklustre displays.

It's a disappointing day when the group stage of the biggest club competition in world football doesn't motivate players like it used to. It's the player's fault for not producing the performances, but it should be a wake up call to the governing bodies, and in this case UEFA, that the first stage of the competition is being devalued, perhaps by the size of opposition involved.

The argument is again not strengthened by the challenge of several of Europe's supposed minnows. The likes of Turkey's Trabzonspor and Cyprus' APOEL, who became the first team from the Mediterranean island to qualify for the knock-out stages in the competition's history, both sustained credible challenges for the last-16.

In addition, it shouldn't be UEFA's policy to look into the entire structure of the competition just because one of its big players fails to make the grade. The one sided nature of some of this year's groups saw three teams fail to pick up a point, which precedes four from the previous two years. If this is as prestigious a competition as UEFA make us believe it is, these sorts of trends shouldn't be occurring.

The fear for Ferguson must be that if his squad can't raise themselves for the Champions League group stage, how will they motivate themselves for a trip to the likes of FC Vauli or Metalist Kharkiv? With many of the squad possessing multiple Premier League winners medals, let's hope Ferguson has no problems inspiring his team in the domestic end of the season run-in.

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