Manchester United's team in transition found wanting

European failures this season showed that Ferguson's latest side is still a work in progress was painfully exposed

Patrice Evra's analysis of Manchester United's Europa League elimination was as excoriating as when they tumbled into the competition in the first place. "From the beginning this season, it has been a disaster [in Europe]," he said. "I think we have to tell the truth. We never played well and we deserve to go out. We never played in Europe with the same desire that we show in the Premier League this season. And we have to accept that."

Which was not the full truth. Evra's analysis inferred that United could have maintained their customary continental swagger if only they had put their minds to it – "maybe we were too confident at the beginning of the Champions League. Maybe we were thinking we have the [reputation] and we would go through easily," he added – though what we have witnessed in the course of the first season since 2002 in which United will not contest a cup final is a club deep in the throes of transition. The new young components – Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Rafael da Silva – were all found wanting to varying extents. David de Gea is the only one to stagger out of the dark with a reputation enhanced.

Evra was wrong to suggest, late on Thursday night after defeat to Athletic Bilbao, that greater desire allows United to dominate English football in the way that they have not the continental game. It is the inferior competition which makes it so. Roy Keane railed against a United side "deceived into thinking that we were something better than we were by beating nothings in the Premiership" in the years after 1999 and the quiet observations of Gary Neville, in his "Ambassador's Column" for the match programme for United's first leg against Athletic, best articulated the difference between facing say, Bolton and Bilbao.

"There's a subtlety and an attention to detail you need in Europe," he wrote. "You're talking about football where inches matter and being yards out of position matter, whereas the Premier League can be a little more forgiving. In Europe, opponents are more ruthless, more clinical in front of goal and you can find that you have nobody to mark for large periods of the game because they try and play in between you. It's just something you have to go through.

"We were taken to school for three years in Europe from 1996 through to 1999, particularly by Juventus at times," Neville added, "and these are the lessons that you can see being taught to some of our younger lads this year."

Cleverley's struggle with Ajax at Old Trafford last month foretold what happened to him in Estadio San Mames. Smalling simply could not deal with the intelligence of Athletic's attacks. Rafael just is not convincing. United have a lot of players emerging, a lot of players exiting and perhaps only two players of world class, Wayne Rooney and Luis Nani, in between. "If I had the answer [to why we played badly] this would never have happened," Evra said. The answer is that we are witnessing a controlled, purposeful rebuilding by Sir Alex Ferguson, which is more than can be said of Arsenal or Chelsea.

It is too early to say whether those being asked to pick up the torch will one day strike fear into the continent. In a revealing interview with the French journalist Philippe Auclair, in the latest edition of football quarterly The Blizzard, Ferguson defines the visionary component which Cristiano Ronaldo, Eric Cantona, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs brought to his teams. There is, the manager says, "always a balance of thoughts and a balance of instruction through all teams. To some players you say 'keep your game simple' because they're better when they're uncomplicated. And there are some players who take the game to a different level; a level which I can't see myself because I don't have their vision and they see things that I as a coach don't see."

He needs those who take the game to a level that he "can't see". Since after the humiliating Champions League exit of 2005, he made good on his promise that Rooney and Ronaldo would be such men. There is no doubt he can build one last great side and that this winter has been their proving ground.

A more bitter and almighty battle is about to unfold in the Premier League, in which the cost of losing has just gone up from local humiliation to the ignominy of ending the season as a potless failure. United can potentially open a four-point gap on City with their visit to Wolves tomorrow. "If we want to save the season we have to win the league," Evra observed. "I'm not worried by the Premier League because we always win well and now we are top." Yet Ferguson will be feeling that ache of his, about United's absence from the pantheon of multiple European champions. "It's a great danger to close your eyes to the future," he told Auclair.

Europa League draw

AZ Alkmaar v Valencia

Schalke 04 v Athletic Bilbao

Sporting Lisbon v Metalist Kharkiv

Atletico Madrid v Hannover 96

Ties to be played 29 March & 5 April

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