If you’re not looking at your best right now – a bit run down, not as attractive as you were a few years ago – then the last thing you want is for people to point that out to you. Manchester United don’t have a choice.
As Chelsea recover from what was a pretty good result in Paris, and Arsenal and Manchester City prepare for their Champions League battles in the week ahead, United are in the Europa League and in Herning, Denmark, taking on a team which would be experiencing their highest number of Google hits right now if only more people could spell their name.
FC Midtjylland is that name, and so begins United’s shotgun marriage with a competition in which they don’t really want to be in.
The last time they were, when they tumbled out of the Champions League in 2011/12, they muddled past Ajax before losing at home and away to a lively Athletic Bilbao side who were on their way to the final. That was the season their spectacular title race collapse allowed Manchester City and Sergio Aguerooooooooo in to win the Premier League, too, but they were to win it back the following season. Order would be restored.
Now, though, what is order?
As Louis van Gaal continues to lead the club with all the enthusiasm of a man walking the Green Mile, United trudge on from one disappointment to the next – the latest coming at Sunderland last Saturday.
There will be the odd cause for celebration, a smile here, an embrace there, but in the main every United match at the moment just seems to be another opportunity to embarrass themselves. Van Gaal has sucked so much life out the grandest of English football institutions that it now just lies still, contemplating their next move – sideways, obviously, just like the passing.
It’s not all the Dutchman’s fault, of course.
Van Gaal is the United manager at the most difficult time that anyone’s had that job ever since Alex Ferguson’s infamous, pre-knighthood Mark Robins moment. David Moyes was always the fall guy, but this experienced, celebrated European boss was supposed to be the clichéd ‘safe pair of hands.’ He was supposed to guarantee a return to the all-powerful, all-conquering Ferguson years. Remember them? They’d spit on your Europa League.
But United could yet win this competition, if only they showed a willingness to. They are the joint-second favourites behind Borussia Dortmund, and with no title race distractions then they should be able to give it their all. You just kind of get the feeling that they won’t.
On they trudge with Van Gaal at the helm, the lame duck just waiting for Jose Mourinho to barricade himself inside the Old Trafford boardroom with nothing but a three-year contract, a pen and Ed Woodward.
It seems certain that he will eventually get the job in the summer because both parties desperately need each other. United need Mourinho to make them feel relevant again, and the Portuguese needs them to prove that he’s still the special one trusted with the keys to one of the highest-profile positions in Europe, and we’re not just talking in football.
Despite his Chelsea meltdown, Mourinho will also bring with him a sense of public perception that Van Gaal lacks, with the visual evidence of the Dutchman’s failure coming in Denmark tonight. The fact that United are even there shows that he’s messed up.
From here they could accept their current status as European also-rans and build towards the top again, starting with winning this competition and getting back into the Champions League. But with Van Gaal in charge that looks impossible. How can they build anything on such shaky foundations?
Wayne Rooney won’t be in Denmark as he’s injured, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Manchester United captain was just taking the night off. Given the 6pm kick-off time and the unappealing nature of their team’s play, plenty of the club’s fans might too.
Their team used to be so much better looking, and above the idea of being forced into a competition that they didn’t want to be in.
Times have changed, just like their manager has to soon.
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