Champions League exit shows Manchester United lack substance
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.