Manchester wakes up to reality check as Barcelona dazzle on Euro stage
They had good reason to grimace already, so the two Manchester football managers coming to terms with a Euro downgrade yesterday would have done well to avoid reports from the land of the ruble.
Quietly and without ceremony, a next generation Barcelona side – average age 20 and including the 21st player Pep Guardiola has brought through from the club's youth system – eased to a 4-0 over a Bate Borisov side in Belarus, coincidentally equalling the Champions League record of 20 goals at the group stage.
It is a story which explains why Barcelona obsess United and City in equal measure and why Ferguson has become especially mesmerised with the elixir of youth as he moves towards his 71st year.
His televised discussion with his former goalkeeper Fabien Barthez passed almost without comment amid the euphoria of his 25th anniversary last month, but it revealed how the idea of conquering with young players has taken an extraordinary hold of him.
“My philosophy has always been with young players. I prefer young players,” he told Barthez.
“The foundation is built upon a collection of players who stay for a long time. It is easy, then, to build a family of people who grow together, understand each other and are friends, because that is what times does – it builds friendships.”
Notice how a defence of youth was also the first thought on Ferguson's mind in the bitter chill of defeat in Basle which commits United to the Europa League.
“We have enough young players to get us through,” he said. There is a certain valour in maintaining the course on which he has set United and a romance, binding him into United's glorious past.
“The romance started with the Busby team and then he rebuilt that team 10 years later to win the European Cup,” Ferguson told Barthez.
But United's catastrophic exit from the tournament has, frankly, revealed that the young players are not ready, however much hope is draped around their slender shoulders.
United have trudged dismally around England and Europe in the past three months and even factoring in Ferguson's ability to confound the doubters it is difficult to foresee them retaining the domestic title from the place they are in.
United, who sacrificed domestic ascendancy to Chelsea after their group stage elimination six years ago, are in flux. It may take them some time to emerge, given Ferguson's little-reported admission last autumn, at the height of the saga in which Wayne Rooney questioned United's ability to sign “world class players”.
“When you see Manchester United at the moment with all these young players, 14 under 22, you can't see Manchester United three years ahead,” Ferguson said on October 21, 2010 – the night of Rooney's searing statement, questioning the club's ambition.
The problem is that no club can afford to wait three years. Barcelona have struck gold in recognising that the youth-team coach is the second most important professional at their club and anointing that individual – Guardiola – as first-team coach.
But critical to the gulf they have opened on United, the Spanish side have been known to splash out.Their net spend over the past six years has been £200.3m – with David Villa, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas all added to the ranks when required.
United's net spend in the same period has been £55.14m, a figure skewed by the £80m sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, certainly, but one which is actually lower than both Sunderland and Stoke City, whose net outgoings on players in the same period have been £62m and £61.19m respectively.
That the purchases of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez should have contributed to that total reveals that this is a complicated picture, though United's desperate desire to hold onto Rooney revealed how the spirit of the side has become unhealthily channelled into one player.
A year on from his insurrection, Rooney finds himself chief cook and bottlewasher because the club who actually had pretentions to challenge Barcelona lack anyone else to do a job in midfield.
Benfica's Nicolas Gaitan looks like the minimum requirement, to lift some of the ridiculous expectations heaped on Tom Cleverley.
“I'm just getting a little bit worried that it seems our whole future depends on Tom Cleverley,” Lou Macari said recently. “It's getting a little bit out of hand.” The burden was never like this for Ronaldo and Rooney.
The mood across at Manchester City was far less dark, yesterday.
Mancini reiterated that he feels his club are not in the same bracket as Barcelona, Real Madrid or even Bayern Munich, though their own colossal net spend has left him believing that his time will come next September.
Mancini said: “We are disappointed, that is normal. We wanted to go into the second stage and now we can do nothing.
“It is my opinion next year, that if we play Champions League, we will do better. I am sure we will improve, but it is important to finish well this year.
“When I say finish well this year, I mean to maybe win two trophies.
“We are not United or Bayern Munich or Real Madrid.
“For us to win the Europa League is an important trophy. It is clear we wanted to win the Champions League but this is not possible.
“The Europa League is now an important trophy. The Barclays Premier League is the priority – and the Europa League, Carling Cup, FA Cup.”
But Mancini's board don't think the sky is entirely blue and Barcelona are, again, the cloud looming over it. The time has arrived, in the landscape of financial fair play, when City must sell to buy and must draw on their own young, too.
Yet there is an acceptance at the highest level of the club that the quality of their under-19s leaves them light years away from Barcelona's. Remember the names of Denis Suarez, Abdul Razak and Karim Rekik, certainly, but few others seem to belong to the future.
Perhaps the city of Manchester's hopes of European supremacy rest with Barcelona – and the hope that all clubs' success is cyclical.
Ferguson ruminated after last May's Champions League final defeat on the question of “how long it lasts... whether [Barcelona] can replace that team at some point” and concluded that “it's always difficult to find players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi all the time, [so it's] probably not [going to last.]”
Events in Belarus seem to remove even that slim hope.