It could be a very long journey back into the Champions League for Manchester United after tonight, and a last glance over their shoulder at the unstoppable football machine that resides in the Allianz Arena will tell them how far they have to come.
Bayern Munich are one of the greatest teams of the modern era, they might end up being the greatest team of the modern era, but either way they were far too good for David Moyes’ team. United kept the lion at bay for a while, they even took the lead through Patrice Evra’s remarkable goal before the hour, but when the true might of Bayern was unleashed upon them, they had no response.
For all that was commendable in United’s performance, and there were some excellent performances from the likes of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, it was a reminder of what they have become since those days when they reached three finals in four years. They are second tier now, one of those sides who play the big guns in hope rather than expectation. Even worse, the likelihood is that they have played their last Champions League game for at least one season.
It was always a faint hope that United might win this competition to ensure their participation next season. Now that is gone they are left a miserly seventh in the Premier League, seven points off fourth place with five games to play. The likelihood is that for the first time in 18 years they will not be in the Champions League next season to share a pitch with the likes of Bayern, much less try to beat them over two games.
In terms of the way the game developed, this was not a catastrophic defeat for Moyes, whose team were good in the first half and had Pep Guardiola rattled for a brief period. But it was another defeat and there have been so many of them for United this season. Led by Arjen Robben, who scored his team’s third goal, and was the best player on the pitch, this was undeniably a victory for the better side.
Moyes gave a start to Smalling who responded in the first half with one of his best performances in a United shirt. Mario Mandzukic, later to score Bayern’s first, was safely stowed in the Englishman’s pocket and everything asked of Smalling before the break, he performed with confidence.
The same could be said of the entire United defence in the first half which kept Bayern at bay in spite of their vastly superior possession. It was hard to recall a serious test for David De Gea and as Bayern encircled their opponents, they were stopped many times just as they looked to have opened the door.
Never more so than when Robben’s darting run from the right channel with a minute of the half to play left an opening for a shot that Smalling managed to get his body in front of before it reached De Gea. That was the story with so much of Bayern’s attacking in the first half. They got deep into United’s half, but they never really got behind their opponents.
Moyes had selected a team with pace in Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia to try to stretch Bayern in the wide places where they tend to push their full-backs on. They failed to do that enough in the first half and the one chance that came their way was not capitalised upon.
It was a smart move that got Wayne Rooney one-on-one with Dante, the Brazilian centre-back. Bayern swarmed the ball when United were in possession and with that in mind, Darren Fletcher went long at the first opportunity. Rooney out-jumped Dante and got the ball facing goal but having made that chance dithered too long over the shot. To his left, Shinji Kagawa was in space but Rooney seemed oblivious to him.
That was in the eighth minute and there was precious little else from United other than an offside goal from Valencia that was not hard for the Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson to disallow. Other than that, United fell back and asked the question to Bayern as to how they might them break down. The answer was not that imaginative, at least before the break.
Robben tried to do it on his own. Franck Ribery drifted in and out on the left wing. And all the while the space in the centre became so congested that the likes of Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller struggled to put a boot on the ball. Nemanja Vidic was very harshly booked for a header he won over the top of Mandzukic, who was proving a very ineffective leading striker.
In the first half, when the ball was in their area, which was a lot, United just looked sharper and hungrier to respond – from the defence to Fletcher and Michael Carrick who himself made some critical interventions.
The second part of the plan was the goal that United needed to get back into the tie, and it came in spectacular fashion in the 57th minute. Before then, they had become more adventurous and Kagawa had hit a good long range effort that stretched Neuer two minutes before the United goal.
Evra had two goals this season before tonight, but none to hold a candle to the beauty he lashed past Neuer. Valencia had broken well down the right and crossed but there was no-one to meet the ball which bounced three times before Evra connected with the sweet spot of his left foot. It was past Neuer before he could get a coordinate on it.
The United bench cleared onto the pitch in celebration but once Moyes had composed himself he had the presence of mind to issue instructions to Vidic, Evra and Kagawa. Sadly it seemed like none of them were listening. Bayern scored with their next attack, a header by Mandzukic from Ribery’s cross. Of all Moyes’ players, it was Evra who failed to track the Bayern centre-forward.
Between Bayern’s first two goals, there were opportunities for United to score another. Most notably for Rooney who horribly misjudged a cut-back from Welbeck and barely made a connection of any note at all. Valencia’s long ball forward to Welbeck was a much trickier proposition but his first touch was woeful and the chance ran away.
Bayern’s second was from Muller who finished from close range finish from Robben’s cross from the right. The Dutchman deservedly scored one of his own with 14 minutes left when he accelerated away from Evra and then Vidic who deflected the resulting shot past De Gea. Robben is the sort of match-winner that United used to have in their ranks, but once again there was no-one to rescue them.
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