Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 September 2019

Reality check against Barcelona sets up summer of change for Manchester United

United's level was put in perspective by their emphatic loss to the La Liga leaders in the Uefa Champions League quarter-final

The last time Manchester United exited the Uefa Champions League at the quarter final stage in April 2014, they travelled to Everton on the following Sunday.

At Goodison Park, a grim reaper appeared behind then manager David Moyes.

It was a bizarre signal that his time was up and he was duly dismissed the following day following a defeat which left it mathematically impossible for United to reach the following season’s Champions League.

United are at Everton again this Sunday. There will be no grim reaper. Security has been tightened up at Premier League grounds and an adult holding a large scythe would not get into the stadium. That and the job of the current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not under pressure.

The Norwegian has a huge task to do and his side are still in contention for a top four finish, though you wonder whether United would be better not being in the Champions League next season because they are well short of the quality required to win it.

A run in the Europa League might cost the club financially, but that is a more realistic level for where United are at the moment.

They are sixth in the Premier League, out of the FA Cup and the Champions League at the quarter final stage for a reason.

Solskjaer started so well, but his side have lost five of their seven games. Losing twice in less then a month to Wolverhampton Wanderers should be a truer marker of where United are at then being beaten 3-0 at Barcelona.

Being outclassed by the Catalans is nothing new, nor nothing to be ashamed of.

United had lost two and drawn two of their four previous visits against Barca, but there was a gulf in class in front of that vast 96,708 crowd on Tuesday. That had bee the same in 1994 when United lost 4-0 having had to rest several of their best players because of a restrictive rule on who they could play.

Then, Hrsito Stoichkov and Romario destroyed United. On Tuesday, Lionel Messi showed why he is arguably the best player ever with a consistency that few United players can match.

The Catalans have superior players than United, a clearer philosophy and recruitment strategy.

They have been watching Marcus Rashford closely for two years and think he will fit in with their style and can play across three positions, but they know United are unlikely to sell a homegrown player who is key to their rebuilding.

Instead, Barca have a plan B, C, D and E. United are looking at appointing a sporting director; Barcelona have three in senior positions.

Solskjaer deserved the job after 15 wins in his first 19 games after taking over in December, including an incredible victory over Paris Saint-Germain. The games against Barcelona were a bonus, but they also were a sobering reminder of reality.

“We know there's work to be done, I've said all along this isn't going to change overnight and the next few years are going to be massive to get to the level Barcelona and other teams are at,” said the Norwegian.

“We want to play these games again next year so we have a massive week coming up. There’s no point dwelling as it could have been different if we had started better and got that first goal.”

There were no shortage of knee-jerk reactions among United fans on Wednesday morning, just as there were among the 5,000 travelling fans last night in Camp Nou high in the nose bleed seats on the third tier, many who left well before the end of the game.

There is the inevitable demand for a clear out, of wholesale changes, but that is not going to happen.

United will likely move three or four players on when the season ends and bring in three or four new ones, but there is a sense that it’s not just about who they sign which will determine future successes.

United have been blinded by star names but they don’t have a Messi. Nobody does.

“I have to say he is top quality and he was the difference,” said Solskjaer. “When they went 2-0 up that was game over.

"He is different class, him and Ronaldo have been the best players the last decade. Now tonight he shows his quality. That is the Barcelona team here, that’s the level we have to aspire to. We can get there but we have loads of work to do.”

That work starts at Everton at the weekend as United aim to get that top four finish, but that cannot mask the fact that this is another season which has ended in disappointment, one most United fans would rather see the end of, especially with their big rivals Liverpool and Manchester City doing so well.

United, who started boldly and brightly against Barcelona, attacking and heeding the words of Johan Cruyff outside the stadium to ‘Go out and enjoy yourselves’. It didn’t last long and a couple of errors from Ashley Young and David De Gea saw the team 2-0 down within 20 minutes.

Solskjaer has done well to keep the season alive for so long, but while the club might think it can come from signing new players which excite fans and boost engagements, but a clearer long term strategy would be better.

With four managerial changes, that has not been clear in the post Ferguson era. Football is cyclical and United enjoyed enough success to last a lifetime under Ferguson.

The fans are patient, but some kind of signal that a sustained recovery is on the way would be welcomed. It is easier said than done. Instead, there have been several false dawns for a good side, but not a great team.

Updated: April 17, 2019 02:32 PM

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