Manchester United, reeling from their Champions League exit at the hands of Bayern Munich, need to show some typical German efficiency on Sunday at Blackburn Rovers if they are to continue their push for a record 19th top-flight title. Their inability to shake off stupor brought on by European exertions, however, may hinder their hopes.
United, who were knocked out of Europe on Wednesday night after losing to Bayern over two legs, have already been defeated seven times in the Premier League this season - three more than their entire campaign last year. Worryingly for Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager, ahead of Sunday's match where anything less than three points would leave a huge dent in their title challenge, five of United's seven defeats have come following a Champions League tie.
Three points from a possible 15 in matches played after an away leg of a European tie go a long way to explaining why the champions are no longer favourites to retain their the league. Seven from a possible 12 at home go further still. But what has changed since last year, when they reached the final of Europe's elite competition and still managed to win the league? The answer, it initially appears, is not all that much: United's European hangover is not a problem that developed this season.
They lost to Portsmouth during their two-legged tie with Roma in 2006/07. The following season, again between back-to-back games with the Italians, they drew with Middlesbrough. United's solitary home loss in the league last season - a humbling 4-1 defeat to Liverpool - took place three days after exertions at home to Inter Milan. That said, in 2008/09, United played 10 times in the Champions League, collecting 21 points from 30 in league matches following them - a far superior haul to this year's 10 points from 27. Last year, with United drawn with Celtic in the group stages and Arsenal in the two-legged semi- final, the travel required was not of the same magnitude as this season, where they have flown to Russia and Turkey.
Sunday's match has taken on huge importance following defeats to Chelsea and Bayern; returning to Manchester without a win would be a blow to United's aspirations - especially with neither Chelsea nor Arsenal in league action. Arsenal - who lost in Barcelona midweek - do not play again until Wednesday, but do not seem to suffer from a European hangover anyway. They have picked up 13 points from a potential 15 following away legs in the Champions League this season.
Ferguson will have to choose his team from the same pool of 18 that suffered heartbreak on Wednesday. The high-profile forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, who left last summer, have not been adequately replaced and with injuries to a host of players such as Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Michael Owen and Wes Brown - not to mention Wayne Rooney - the lack of strength in depth available at Old Trafford has been highlighted. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org