Ferguson's humiliated men head for Europe's backwaters

From Matchday One, the Champions League has given a glimpse of United's ugly underbelly

All that remains are the flashbacks and nightmares. Another European campaign ended for Manchester United by opponents clad in blue and red; another occasion when their adopted white shirts could not disguise their flaws; another night when a diminutive sorcerer orchestrated Sir Alex Ferguson's torment. Then it was Barcelona, and Lionel Messi, and Wembley. This time it was Basle, and Xherdan Shaqiri, and St Jakob-Park. From the Catalans, United received an unprecedented beating, the Scot confessed in defeat. This was worse. In the cantons, they suffered abject humiliation.

This has happened before, this ignominy of finding their Champions League campaign over before Christmas. United must be coming to dread the mention of Benfica: the Portuguese side were there too, when Ferguson's team were eliminated at the same stage five years ago. Then, they were beaten even to a spot in the Europa League, that scantest of consolations.

The bare facts may not suggest it, but this is immeasurably, indescribably worse. That 2006 group, featuring Lille and Villarreal – eventual semi-finalists – as well as Benfica, responsible for Liverpool's exit in the last 16, was a significantly more imposing hurdle. Drawn with the Swiss champions, the second best team in Portugal and impoverished debutants from Romania, Ferguson would have been hard pushed to cherry-pick a more favourable group this time around.

United, then, were very much a work in progress, still caught between the sides constructed to feed the predatory instincts of Ruud van Nistelrooy and those built to showcase the elegance and the arrogance of Cristiano Ronaldo. They would go on to win three Premier League titles in the following three seasons, deposing Chelsea on their way. Ferguson was building his fourth great team.

This is supposed to be a transition year too, a season in which the most enduring stalwarts of that – and earlier – sides are finally put out to pasture, and a new generation of colts broken in at Old Trafford. Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and the rest replacing Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and, in Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, those who have already consigned themselves to history.

Even when that project appeared to be running smoothly, as Ferguson's bright, new generation of artists as young men offered the Premier League the most flattering portrait imaginable of their talents, Europe was the rotten, disintegrating image hidden in the attic. From what Uefa rather preposterously refers to as Matchday One, the Champions League has offered a glimpse of United's ugly underbelly.

As they put Arsenal and others to the sword in domestic combat, their flaws were left exposed when faced with more exotic challenges. Basle scored three times at Old Trafford. Even Otelul Galati, entirely unheralded, drowning out of their depth, cut their hosts open with abandon. United seemed cocksure, swaggering, strong. It was illusory, fleeting. There was style, but little substance.

And when Ferguson rectified that shortcoming, he could not find a way to make them beautiful again. United have mastered the narrow victory in the Premier League, enabling them to keep pace with Manchester City's relentless juggernaut, but more is required, even against opponents seemingly as pliable as these. Basle took just nine minutes last night to tear asunder the Premier League champions. Imagine what Barcelona, or Real Madrid, or even Napoli, might have done.

This is a year of transition, of that there can be no doubt. It has to be – otherwise there is no hope. It is one that will take them to Europe's backwaters, thanks to the winding road plotted by the Europa League. United's journey, though, was always going to be a long and hard one. It is simply that they did not, perhaps, realise quite how long, and quite how hard.

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
A poster by Durham Constabulary
news
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Emily McDowell Card that reads:
artCancer survivor Emily McDowell kicks back at the clichés
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvBadalamenti on board for third series
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Standing room only: the terraces at Villa Park in 1935
football
Sport
Ben Stokes celebrates with his team mates after bowling Brendon McCullum
sportEngland vs New Zealand report
News
Amal Clooney has joined the legal team defending 'The Hooden Men'
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine