This season, Manchester United returned to the Champions League where we belong, and have made a solid start to our attempt to climb back to the top of the European summit. Winning a group that included FC Basel, CSKA and FC Basel with essentially two games to spare was an indication of the improvement that the club has made under Jose Mourinho, and earning a winnable second round tie against Sevilla gives us a great chance of reaching the quarter-finals.
We are strong favourites in sports betting markets to win the first leg against the Spanish side, but perhaps understandably. given our recent efforts domestically, we are not among the top five favourites to lift the Champions League trophy this season.
Three managers ago, things were very different. We were regularly rated among the top two or three European sides, and besides winning the competition twice, Sir Alex Ferguson had us making a serious challenge for the title on a regular basis.
Everyone knew that post-Ferguson, there would be a period of transition and that results in the short-term could fall away, but the hope was that this process might last perhaps a season or so. In the event, the transition has proven more painful than expected and has not yet been completed. Before the 2017-18 season began, we had managed just six matches in the Champions League in four seasons – a woeful record for a club our size.
That record could have been different had we been able to cling on at the Allianz Arena in April 2014. When Patrice Evra scored with a little over half an hour to go, David Moyes’ side were heading to the semi-finals of the Champions League. Twenty-two seconds later, Mario Mandzukic equalised and the slim hope of progression was over.
However, in truth, that was a team that reached the quarter-finals on muscle memory rather than the acumen of our new manager at the time, and David Moyes’ departure soon after was inevitable, given the state of our Premier League performances at the time. Our return to the Champions League under Louis van Gaal was equally underwhelming, and it took the arrival of Mourinho to produce a United team that looked as though it could compete in Europe.
Yet as the betting markets show, we are still a way short of being considered among the best sides in Europe, and that will always be a painful truth for United fans to contemplate. As it stands, we are some way short of being able to compete with the tournament’s big three – Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich – while Juventus and Atletico Madrid have also overtaken us, and big-spending Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are pushing hard to gain the European dominance to go with their transfer market strength.
Mourinho has at least brought some pride and success back to the team, and under his management, a top four place in the Premier League – and regular Champions League football – looks assured. Now that we have a foothold back in Europe, what do we need to do to return to the top table of European football?
The boss has certainly assembled a squad with sufficient talent to make an impact, and his tactical acumen, so crucial in guiding the team through a tricky Europa League campaign last season, means that we will have a chance of beating anyone in a one-off game. However, dominating in Europe is about more than scrambling short-term results.
The key to United returning to the top of European football can be found not in the Champions League but in the Premier League. It was domestic dominance that gave Sir Alex’s sides the platform to re-establish themselves among the European elite, and while it is possible in the Champions League era for a team to win the competition without being the best domestic side, it is rare. After all, if you can’t dominate in your own country, it is that much harder to do so when taking on a whole continent.
Winning and dominating the Premier League not only ensures regular, trouble-free qualification for the Champions League but also provides a continuity of confidence and a foundation for conquering Europe. Of course, returning to prominence domestically is a long-term project. Given Mourinho’s record, it isn’t certain whether he will be the man for the job, but if he can keep us in the top four of the Premier League for the remainder of his tenure, it will at least give his successor a legacy of regular Champions League football on which to build…