Sir Alex Ferguson's raw emotion at his club's first Champions League group-stage exit in six years led him to round on his former captain Roy Keane last night, as Manchester United's hopes of finally eclipsing Barcelona collapsed into the grim prospect of Thursday-night football in the Europa League.
Keane, United's harshest critic when a player, said that the club "got what they deserved" in the course of a 2-1 defeat to Basle which saw them eliminated, six years to the day that they last exited at the group stage, against Benfica in Lisbon. He said he was "disturbed" by pre-match comments from midfielder, Phil Jones, that United were "relaxed" about the pressure. "I'd be getting hold of these players saying: 'You'd better buck your ideas up,'" Keane said.
"I don't know why you are bringing this up," replied Ferguson, after experiencing only his third group-stage elimination. "Roy has had an opportunity to prove himself as a manager and it's a hard job. We have enough good young players to see us through. That is the part of football you have to deal with. These young players will have to cope with it and get on with it in their careers."
Ferguson, whose side will be joined by Manchester City in the Europa League after their 2-0 win against Bayern Munich could not prevent Napoli qualifying, disclosed that his captain, Nemanja Vidic, had been taken off with a medial ligament injury which could see the defender out for two months.
Patrice Evra displayed the most shock. "It is embarrassing to be in the Europa League. I don't have the words to describe how I feel and all I can say is that it is a sad day," the Frenchman said. "It is not just about tonight, it is about the whole competition," he said. "We threw away the chance to qualify and from the beginning of the season we have not played well in the Champions League.
"Being in the Europa League will make it more difficult for us to win the Premier League but we deserve it. We need to play with heart and determination. We have to be honest and say we haven't been professional from the beginning of this competition. I don't know why. Maybe one or two of us have to look in the mirror and say we can do a lot better than we have done.
"I'll be honest; it is a strange feeling," Evra added. "It feels like a dream. But it is reality and we should have woken up earlier in this competition. We deserve to be out."
The City manager, Roberto Mancini, blamed a tough group for his exit. "I think that usually with 10 points all the teams go through: 99 per cent do. We made some mistakes but this can happen. Maybe now we think the Europa League is not an important trophy but if we reach the final it is," he said.
United's exit comes only 193 days after they lost to Barcelona in last season's Champions League final at Wembley, and 31 days before they face City in an FA Cup third round tie which now assumed huge significance for United. Dumped out of the Carling Cup by Crystal Palace last week, defeat to City will leave their season in ruins.
The meagre consolation is that City and United were, with Olympiakos, the best performing Champions League drop-outs, on a points basis, and will therefore face unseeded sides for the round of 32, with their away leg first. On the basis of the current Europa League standings, they could face Rubin Kazan, Besiktas or last season's finalists Braga, amongst others.
COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? firstname.lastname@example.org