It seems only yesterday that United reigned in Europe after winning the UEFA Champions League with two late goals against FC Bayern München. Fast forward seven seasons and the Red Devils, a leading light in the European game for the last decade, contemplate a festive period without the possibility of adding a European title to their Christmas wish list.
Nobody will be more devastated than manager Sir Alex Ferguson who has masterminded an incredible period in the club's history - winning 16 major trophies while thrilling the continent with their attacking play. Having steered United from the murky waters of the 1970s and 1980s, where lifting a domestic cup was the pinnacle, to the point where second place in the Premiership and a spot among Europe's top 32 clubs represents failure, Sir Alex has every reason to be proud.
'Time to rebuild'
Yet the look on his face when the final whistle blew at the Estádio da Luz told a thousand tales. "This is a low point for the club," he said. "We only have ourselves to blame. There will be people in the media who have plenty to say but I have a job to do. We are rebuilding and that must carry on."
With only three goals scored in six UEFA Champions League games, the Scot must now perform major surgery on a side who, with Roy Keane's departure, have lost their talisman. The Irishman's replacement as captain, defender Gary Neville, said his team-mates were well aware of the task ahead.
Class of '99
"The players do not have to lift themselves, they know their responsibilities," said Neville, who along with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes is one of three survivors of the class of 1999. "They have a lot of fight as they have shown over the last few weeks. That's why they are at Manchester United.
"There is no doubt we have underachieved in Europe this season," Neville continued. "There is nothing I can say to the fans that will make them feel better. The last time something like this happened was in 1995 when we got knocked out of the UEFA Cup by [Russian club SC] Rotor Volgograd. We went on to win the Premiership and the FA Cup that season and we will react well to this as well."
That positive response must begin against Everton FC this weekend when United look to reduce Chelsea FC's ten-point lead at the top of the table. This could be difficult, with the English media questioning Sir Alex's tactics and even discussing who might succeed him next summer should United's new American owners decide to call time on his 19-year reign.
Any successor would have an impossible act to follow. Even the greatest manager in British football over the last two decades faces a tough job rebuilding a squad to compete with a Chelsea FC team who look set to dominate the English game. Whisper it quietly but it could be a while before United are great again.
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