For the big beasts of the Champions League, from Liverpool to Barcelona and Bayern Munich, this has been a sobering, fretful campaign – a reminder that the group stages are more than about piling up television money before the real business begins in the knockout rounds.
Not since 2005, when after a numbing defeat by Benfica they finished bottom of their group, denied even a place in the Uefa Cup, have Manchester United been haunted by the prospect of non-qualification. Yesterday, their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, remarked that rather than nurse the wounds inflicted in last season's European Cup final, United's achievement of winning the trophy and then coming within one match of retaining it, ought to be celebrated. "You see how tough it is to retain the European Cup as we so nearly did," he said. "Maybe our achievement has been underestimated because you see how difficult teams like Barcelona have been finding it to defend."
While they have hardly swaggered through to the next stage, United's progress has been a long way from difficult. Curiously, given that their strength in the Champions League has always been at Old Trafford, their qualification with two matches remaining owes much to 1-0 victories chiselled out in Istanbul and Moscow.
At home, they looked edgy in conceding early to Wolfsburg until Dimitar Berbatov seized control of the match, and were 3-1 down to CSKA Moscow before mounting one of their famous late cavalry charges that delighted and frustrated Ferguson in equal measure.
"I was actually smiling with the sheer thrill of it all when walking into the post-match press conference," he said before this evening's match against Besiktas. "But we should never have allowed ourselves to get into a position requiring such a dramatic fightback."
Although Besiktas conceded eight to Liverpool on their last visit to England in 2007 and have not noticeably improved since, Ferguson said he was keen to avoid the undisciplined open play that gave CSKA opportunities they did not spurn.
Tonight, with four regular defenders injured, he is likely to field a young, unfamiliar midfield centred around Gabriel Obertan and Darron Gibson with Park Ji-Sung, who has not played since the Manchester derby in September, also likely to feature.
So, too, should Ben Foster, whose last appearance at Old Trafford was the stilted error-ridden draw with Sunderland almost two months ago. Since when the man lauded by his manager as the best English keeper in the Premier League has played twice – against Barnsley and Brazil.
If Foster is to have a long-term future at Manchester United, much depends on whether Edwin van der Sar decides to spend another year in England. "Usually, around Christmas he will outline his plans and we will wait for that," said Ferguson. "When you get to his age (39) and you have a young family, you wonder whether he does have plans to return to Holland. But he is a very intelligent man who understands his body better than anyone and he will make the right judgement."
Yet while Ferguson is confident about United's present, he appears equally certain about the future. "I have said all along, Ben has terrific ability," Ferguson added. "He needs plenty of game experience, which he has not got at the moment, but the future rests with him and Tomasz Kuszczak. The two of them will fight it out, I am sure of that."
Results so far: Besiktas 0 Man Utd 1, Wolfsburg 3 CSKA 1; Man Utd 2 Wolfsburg 1, CSKA 2 Besiktas 1; CSKA 0 Man Utd 1; Wolfsburg 0 Besiktas 0; Man Utd 3 CSKA 3, Besiktas 0 Wolfsburg 3.
Manchester United's remaining fixtures: Tonight: Besiktas (h); Tues 8 Dec: Wolfsburg (a).Reuse content