red or dead Why Manchester United’s elimination is better for the Champions League in the long run
After vintage Atletico Madrid, there was also vintage faint praise.
“They’re very good,” Diego Simeone said of Manchester United, “but disorganised when they try to create pressure.”
It is as easy to read between the lines as it was for Atletico to disrupt United’s lines. Simeone obviously wanted to display sufficient respect to a great football institution, but couldn’t help his coach’s realism, relaying his understanding that they weren’t a very good team.
United were again shown to not be good enough for this level, losing 1-0 at Old Trafford and 2-1 on aggregate, and the truth is the Champions League latter stages are better off without them.
What would they have added? It would have just been a reality check a bit further down the line. It won’t even miss their stars, such as they are. Some of them are evidently part of the problem.
This was another game where Cristiano Ronaldo looked past it. “Lads, it’s not Tottenham,” might be Atletico’s response. This was the first time they eliminated Ronaldo from the competition, and it was conspicuous that a player who has caused them so much pain barely troubled them at all.
Behind him, there are still a lot of claims and counter-claims about the truth of his relationship with Harry Maguire, but it is impossible to deny the centre-half’s confidence is shot.
His turning circle in the box in the second half may have looked a farce, and may become a meme, but the truth is that Maguire just is nowhere near that bad a player. It’s just that United’s multitude of problems have now created a situation that just brings him down, and brings out the worst in his game.
The circumstances are also bringing out the worst in Bruno Fernandes. Rather than actually affecting the game, he went off here shaking his head, having done little bar one cross. Fernandes has always been a spiky character to the point that he put others out, but that was justifiable when he was producing. Now, an attitude that is idealised as “raising standards” is instead disruptive. Sources also say Fernandes’ “tactical anarchy” disrupts play. He is described by some at the club as “uncoachable”.
These players are only picked out because they’re so prominent, but you could easily go on. United have to do so much to get back to anything close to this level of football.
A bigger question is whether this Champions League season is better for having Atletico. Having a greater variety of teams from different leagues is obviously better. It is what the competition should be about.
It is also healthier that all of the English clubs have not got through, especially given the financial might of the Premier League.
But then United almost feel apart from that, as if the ease of the money coming in has actually had a corrosive effect, where they haven’t had to think as hard about what comes next.
Perhaps the greatest indictment was that this wasn’t even a particularly good Atletico team, and they didn’t need to be particularly good. They only got by on the muscle memory of the core Simeone qualities.
It remains to be seen whether those qualities are sufficient for the Champions League business end. Just as this isn’t the Ronaldo of 2016, this isn’t the Atletico of 2016. There does feel like there’s a vulnerability there. More modern systems, and better teams, should be able to expose them.
But it’s still a knockout competition. It’s one where intense commitment can see you ride your luck, where two fortunate moments can be more useful than two super performances.
Just ask Pep Guardiola that. He’s been a victim of it for so long. He’s also been a victim of Atletico before. Now Ronaldo has for the first time.
United are out again: “Another bad year,” as David De Gea put it.
It sums it up really. That’s probably better for this year’s Champions League.
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