Erik ten Hag after seeing Manchester United crash out of Champions League on Tuesday. | Photo: The Independent
They sang the name of Erik ten Hag’s predecessor. Not in a gesture of dissent, but as a reminder of a time when Manchester United were Europe’s best and an evening without which a certain Norwegian would never have become their manager two decades later. After all, who put the ball in the Germans’ net? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But that was a different millennium, a different United. Nostalgia underpinned Solskjaer’s management. Ten Hag cannot call upon his personal history in such a way; the Champions League final he almost reached was with Ajax. His past does not offer the protection that means his name will always be sung at Old Trafford.
And, 24 years after Solskjaer’s stunning intervention, another United Champions League campaign finished against Bayern Munich. Not in glory, but ignominy. Like Solskjaer, Kingsley Coman has a winner in a Champions League final; this time the winger finished off United, condemning them to a seventh home defeat of the season. In a sense, it may have been the most respectable: United were vaguely competent on the night, but utterly incompetent over the course of a wretched campaign.
There was no hint of a repeat of their most famous comeback against Bayern, ensuring Solskjaer’s name will forever be bracketed with Teddy Sheringham’s. There was not even the sense of heroic failure that accompanied their quarter-final exit to Bayern in 2010. There was just crushing failure. Because it wasn’t Bayern who eliminated them. It was Galatasaray, who won at Old Trafford and scored six goals over 180 minutes against United. It was FC Copenhagen, who qualified instead of them. Rasmus Hojlund’s former club will be in the last 16. His current one won’t. Copenhagen will be the anomalies in the draw, the outsiders with the spot that had seemed reserved for United.
Instead, they are cast out of continental competition altogether. Europe’s sinking superpower have become just the fourth English team to prop up a Champions League group when it concluded. There was something predictable about the manner of their demise; their defence was unlocked by Harry Kane, with a lovely flick. The England captain is the forward United neglected to bid for in the summer. The one they did buy, Hojlund, has at least struck in the Champions League but in domestic competitions he has been outscored 18-0 by Kane.
Yet a rookie centre-forward is not the culprit in chief. For Ten Hag, this has been a chastening setback; with Sir Jim Ratcliffe set to finalise his investment, with United listing in the Premier League, the chances are the Dutchman has managed them in the Champions League for the last time.
Go back four years and it required a 96th minute goal by Lucas Moura to stop him from reaching the final. Now the less heralded Lukas Lerager signalled United’s demise, putting Copenhagen ahead against Galatasaray when United needed a draw to preserve their own chances of qualification; that, and a victory over Bayern. Which, as the German champions have not lost in 40 group-stage games in this competition and United have not beaten anyone resembling a top team this season, always felt unlikely.
This was far from their worst performance of the season, nowhere near as bad as Bournemouth or Crystal Palace or Newcastle, or the other defeat to Newcastle. They were not as self-destructive as they had been in Denmark and Turkey and at home to Galatasaray. But they still lost.
And they still went out, with four points, in fourth place. Go back a couple of months and Raphael Varane had said United could win the Champions League. On a night when Ten Hag seemed to revise his opinion of the quadruple Champions League winner, the defender may need a rethink. Instead, United won a lone game in it and even that required a penalty save to deny FC Copenhagen a draw.
Varane was summoned from his inexplicable exile, after a 10-game absence when both Luke Shaw and Jonny Evans were preferred at centre-back to a World Cup winner. He performed with an assurance to make his omission all the odder, but it has scarcely been the only U-turn in selection; with Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay, Ten Hag is compiling a group who were first out of his plans and then back in. For a manager who likes to project an image of strong, decisiveness leadership, he has had to reverse course rather too often. But then his team are going backwards.
When Coman scored, United became the first Premier League side to concede 15 goals in a Champions League group stage. When Maguire hobbled off, holding his groin, and Evans came on, United had a man who played in United’s 2007-08 Champions League-winning campaign, dragooned into service 16 years later. They will always have the past at Old Trafford, but Evans may be consigned to it; perhaps, in time, Ten Hag, too.
.Culled from The Independent