Manchester United’s Champions League exit at the hands of Sevilla may have been an embarrassing night for the club and its supporters – but for this writer, it was a defeat of a telling significance.
Geoffrey Chaucer once wrote in ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ – that all good things must come to an end.
United went into the game on the back of some excellent recent results – the like of which had not been seen at Old Trafford since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, a comeback victory over reigning champions Chelsea, before battling from two goals down to win 3-2 away to Crystal Palace, and of course the bragging rights after the 2-1 win over their arch-nemesis Liverpool.
Saturday afternoon was a proud time to be a Manchester United supporter, there was a real hope and optimism building around the club. Mourinho had finally found his best team, they had established character – and an ability to turn good performances into promising results versus bigger sides.
Then came Sevilla.
Manchester United did exactly what they had laughed at Liverpool for on Saturday last, dominated possession but simply did nothing with it – in fact, for all the ball they had, it was still the Spaniards who looked more likely to score. When Wissam Ben Yedder fired home his first goal, there was an audible sense of frustration at Old Trafford – but it was not one of surprise.
United’s performance was summarised quite well by Waterford hurler Austin Gleeson on Twitter, the Mount Sion man recognising the inability of Paul Pogba to play simple passes, and Alexis Sanchez once again playing the passenger role in a game of such a significant magnitude:
Sanchez must be still hiding behind that piano du du du du ??.. 90 million pogba can’t pass the ball 20 yards ???? best buzz ever ???
— AussieGleeson (@AussieGleeson) March 13, 2018
Sadly, this has become something that United fans have become used to, and the reality is quite simple – it shouldn’t be. To make matters worse for them, there is a club just around the corner where such a thing would seemingly never happen – of course I’m talking about Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
What exuded from the air at Old Trafford last night was an overwhelming sense of disbelief, that a club of such a great stature could falter once more when it matters most, and it hurts even more to know that while they lick their wounds, it is their neighbours who find themselves basking in glory.
Guardiola’s City are on course for one of the most straightforward title wins, not just in the Premier League, but domestic top-flight footballing history. They have lost one league game all campaign, picked up just two draws, and swatted away every side they have faced with ease. In fact, should they defeat Everton at Goodison Park in a few weeks’ time, they will have defeated every single side in the Premier League this season.
League Cup success is not essentially regarded as too much of a big deal in England, but City’s recent victory over Arsenal in the final will have given Guardiola’s appetite for success a further boost; he will not want his first trophy to be one of his last. Guardiola is building a legacy at the Etihad, and the double which looks likely to be completed in the next few weeks will send a message to United more so than anyone else – that this is City’s time to shine. United have had their day in the sun but it is now the blue side of Manchester that is the name on everyone’s lips.
In fact, few would back against City completing a treble of their own to mirror United’s 1999 peak – a team regarded by many as one of the best to have ever graced the game, yet their neighbours could match it come the end of May. City have been as ruthless in Europe as they have domestically, defeating all that has lay before them and allowing Guardiola to rest his players for matches of insignificance – given that they are already won by virtue of the reverse fixture.
There has always been so much talk of comparisons between Manchester United and Manchester City, none more so than at present. To summarise how much City have come along in the last decade is to note this instance, Manchester United had won the Premier League title for the second consecutive season in May 2008, and would go on to complete the double when they defeated Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League final later that month. In contrast, City finished tenth in the table on 50 points, and lost out 8-1 to Middlesbrough on the final day of the season.
Four seasons later, and City had their first day in the sun – Sergio Aguero’s stoppage-time winner against Queens Park Rangers securing the title with the last kick of the campaign in 2012, a title which Manchester United had thought they had already won. The first instance in which they learned not to underestimate the power of the blue side of the divide.
While everything is open to possibility, make no bones about it – although people are keen to remind us that Manchester City have won nothing yet, Pep Guardiola is building a dynasty at the club. Backed by an incredible wealth of finance but also a man-management style that reaps the best out of talent, he is outwitting Mourinho’s United, and all other title rivals included, in every way possible.
Take a look at Manchester United’s problem players at present – Pogba and Sanchez. Would Guardiola be failing to get the best out of these players? All you have to do is take a look at the stark contrast of the Raheem Sterling of old and Raheem Sterling now; Guardiola’s system and patience has helped him become a world-class talent, and plenty of others have come on leaps and bounds – namely Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne.
There is going to be a changing of the guard in English football over the coming seasons. In the 1970s and 1980s, you had the fantastic Liverpool sides that conquered Europe with ease under the guidance of the great Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. The late 1980s and 1990s saw the emergence of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United – dominating on the domestic spectrum to the like of which had never been before seen, while also competing as a major piece in the chessboard of European football’s top table.
Back then, Manchester City were not even a pawn – soon they could be the king, while United are well and truly checkmated. This is the era of Manchester City, where children will grow up wearing blue shirts and the Etihad will be one of the most feared fortresses in world football.
If United’s players and manager can’t emerge from the shadows soon, then the consensus is quite simple: it will be a long time before the blue moon goes down on Manchester.
United are by no means in crisis, but may have to get used to lurking in the shadows.
Jordan Norris, Pundit Arena