Manchester United face Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 clash on Wednesday, with the competition their final opportunity win a trophy this season
Manchester United’s Champions League last-16 tie with Atletico Madrid doesn’t need any additional gravitas added to it.
The Red Devils head to the Spanish capital on Wednesday looking to get one over on the struggling LaLiga champions.
Cristiano Ronaldo has already made it abundantly clear that he sees this as “the biggest club competition”, with no plans in place for an early departure.
This is the first time since the 2018/19 season that United have reached the knockout stages, having been dumped out at the groups last term.
But a tantalising two-legged affair also represents Ralf Rangnick’s final attempt of lifting silverware during his interim stint in the Old Trafford dugout.
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Their meek attempt at a title challenge was over well before Christmas, as were their hopes of winning the Carabao Cup.
Going into 2022, the FA Cup appeared to be the most viable route to winning a trophy, a route which was resoundly blocked by Championship outfit Middlesbrough.
So, before the calendar ticks over to March, United are left in a scenario where it is Champions League or bust.
And unless United can upset the odds, the Reds looked destined to extend a trophy drought which stretches back to the summer of 2017.
In fact, should they fail in their quest for a fourth European Cup, by the time their next trophy opportunity comes about, in February of 2023, United will be in the midst of their longest run without silverware for 50 years, the 5 year and 10 month wait between August 1977 and winning the FA Cup in May 1983.
To any Manchester United fans who had only experienced the relentless juggernaut under Sir Alex Ferguson, these are unprecedented times indeed.
The start of the decline
When Ferguson hung up his hairdryer in 2013, he did so with his 13th Premier League title in the trophy cabinet.
It was the final crowning achievement of an era of dominance unlikely to ever be repeated in English football. But few could have anticipated that almost a decade later, United would still be waiting for another league crown.
David Moyes replaced Sir Alex, but he lasted less than a season, before Louis van Gaal rocked up, eventually ending a mini-drought with the FA Cup in 2016.
The Mourinho rollercoaster
Van Gaal’s reward for Wembley heroics was to be replaced with Jose Mourinho. After three years out of the limelight, United wanted a proven winner…and in the Special One acquired one of the most proven winners in European football.
And his ability in knockout football was instantly brought to the fore, as United won the EFL Cup and Europa League in his first season.
Mourinho would also win the charity shield, leaving him to infamously claim he won three trophies, but was still deemed a “disaster”.
However, that Europa League final victory over Ajax was arguably the turning point in Manchester United’s recent history.
As has happened so often under the enigmatic Portuguese coach, dressing room divides became dressing room chasms and by his third season, his position was untenable.
‘Trophies an ego thing’
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ’s subsequent appointment felt like a nostalgic one, clinging onto the magical nights of the Fergie days without a clear plan to bring them into the present day.
His first full season in charge saw them reach two semi finals, before being beaten in both, a trend which would become deeply familiar during his tenure.
The following campaign saw Solskjaer lose another semi-final in the EFL Cup, before reaching the quarter finals of the FA Cup and the final of the Europa League.
United would once again fail to take the final step, allowing Solskjaer to utter some of the most revealing moments of his Man Utd tenure.
Speaking ahead of a crucial cup tie, the Norwegian explained how he felt that, rather than them being the be all and end all, he felt winning trophies was more of an ‘ego thing’.
He said: “In the league position you see if there’s any progress for me, that’s always the bread and butter of the season that you see how capable you are of coping of ups and downs any cup competition can give you a trophy but sometimes it’s more of an ego thing from other managers and clubs to finally win something.”
One ego to another
Manchester United via Getty Imag)
The Europa League final defeat to Villarreal meant United had completed three seasons without winning a trophy.
But after coming so close, but so far, Solskjaer was backed in the market, bringing in Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and perhaps most notably, Cristiano Ronaldo.
The return of one of the club’s greatest talents felt like the final piece of jigsaw and the Portuguese icon quickly made it clear why he had returned.
“I’m in a new chapter of my life, even with my age, and this is why I am here – to try to win and I think Manchester needs to be at this level of winning and thinking to win big things so I’m here to help.”
“Manchester United is a sign [of] winning things and I’m not here for holidays.”
His compatriot Bruno Fernandes has also made it clear that he wants to win silverware, having got so close since his arrival in 2020.
“Of course, in the league it’s too far now,” said Fernandes at the start of January. “We have to be realistic and we have to fight for the top four and being in the Champions League next season.
“But, at the same time, fight for the Champions League and the FA Cup. I don’t care what people think or can say about us winning the Champions League or FA Cup.
“I think we have the chance to win them, the qualities to win them and, most of all, we are in those competitions. Until we are out, we have to believe we can win those competitions.”
Just a month later, Fernandes and Ronaldo are both facing the prospect of their seasons ending in frustration.
Gary Neville once infamously suggested United would “definitely” win the title again before Liverpool did. That’s already been proven emphatically wrong – now United must ensure their wait for top honours doesn’t reminisce their oldest rival’s.