The end of King Eric's reign is nigh

Manchester United's exit from Europe and its consequences
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The Independent Online
The verdict on Manchester United's tilt at European glory could be read in the stands on Wednesday night. In the closing moments of their 1-0 defeat by Borussia Dortmund, when it became obvious that they would not overturn the 2-0 aggregate deficit, United's followers passed judgement.

They had been deathly quiet for 20 minutes as chances came and went to the accompaniment of German drums. Now, as the dream of a place in the European Cup final disappeared, they stood, not to head for the exits, but to acclaim their team, and their conquerors.

Dortmund deserved the applause for their resilience and their opportunism. United deserved it for their efforts on the night and across the season. They had given Old Trafford more than they dared hope for in the autumn, after the trouncing in Turin and two humbling defeats at home.

The fans' view was reflected within the club. After the failings of recent years, simply reaching the semi-finals was an achievement. United will recognise that, for all Alex Ferguson's public protestations, they were not good enough to go further. They have been beaten five times in the competition, including home and away by Dortmund and Juventus.

They are, however, good enough to compete with the best and are learning all the time. Some judicious summer investment and, next season, they could go that one step further.

The question exercising Alex Ferguson's mind this morning is where to improve and who to buy? When you are as good as United the number of players that can improve the team without disrupting the dressing-room and pay structure are rare.

It can be done. "Juventus won the Champions' League last year and they sold and bought," Ferguson said yesterday. They sold Fabrizio Ravanelli, Gianluca Vialli, Paulo Sousa and Pietro Vierchowod among others. The players they brought in included Alen Boksic and Zinedine Zidane and the result is better than the original. It will be a surprise if Juventus do not retain their trophy in Munich on 28 May.

Karel Poborsky has been a disappointment, and United still need a wide right player to provide further options, including allowing David Beckham to play inside more often; they may need a defender to replace the injury- prone Gary Pallister; and, most contentiously, they need a new striker or two. Andy Cole played well on Wednesday but his finishing continues to let him down; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had a good season but is lightweight and still learning; Eric Cantona looked like a man whose time has passed.

Once again he failed to deliver when it mattered and, for the first time, there were stirrings of dissent among his followers. He has had a peripheral impact this season: he missed crucial chances in both legs against Dortmund and United have played well without him, notably at Arsenal.

Possibilities are few. Davor Suker is regularly mentioned but one wonders how he would fit in the dressing-room, and he would not be a replacement for Cantona. No doubt Ferguson will soon be headed for Ringway Airport but one answer could be close to home. If Middlesbrough fail to survive, Juninho may be looking for new employment.

United will need to be better next season as it will be harder to qualify. There are six groups of four and, as England are currently seventh in the rankings, United might not be among the top seeds. With second-placed clubs also involved they could find themselves in a group with Juventus and Barcelona. Only the group winner qualifies automatically, the best two second-placed clubs joining them in the quarter-finals.

The competition begins early, far too early, on 23 July - the day before the fourth cricket Test. That round involves the champions of the minor nations, which will probably include Rangers.

This format may only last a season as Uefa, the governing body of European football, acting on a proposal from Juventus, are planning further reform of their lucrative flagship. They are considering dispensing with two- legged semi-finals and playing a mini-tournament in late May with both semi-finals and the final played within a week in one country.

Brilliant, one might think. This would reduce fixture congestion by freeing two mid-weeks in April. However, anyone leaping to that conclusion has not studied Uefa's empire-building. The two extra midweeks would merely allow the format to become four groups of six. It will simplify the process but the consequence would be more matches, not fewer. Annual income, already outstripping the World Cup finals at more than pounds 100m, will also go up.

At least this year's late-May fixture bottleneck has been eased. Wednesday night's defeat means United's growing coterie of England players should now be (relatively) fresh for the 31 May World Cup tie in Poland and available for the warm-up match with South Africa at Old Trafford on 24 May.

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