With an acute case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’, I’ve slowly grown very weary of the Champions League group stages. Barring a couple of notable exceptions, it’s a hurdle we’ve come to negotiate with ease – half a dozen rarely memorable games, following which the European Cup proper commences.
It wasn’t always like this of course, as back in the early 90’s it all felt thrillingly new. Entire mornings in work written off, listening intently as Radio 5 attempted to explain the interminably long, unfathomably complicated draw and seeding structure. Then eventually, after a couple of hours of UEFA dignitaries, ex-pros reading autocues and the muffled sound of balls being tipped into Perspex containers, we finally got to find out the 3 teams we were up against.
Back then the closed-shop realities of the Champions League format hadn’t been fully realised. United had last competed for the European Cup in 1969 and the 26 year gap between league titles didn’t exactly suggest we’d go on to become mainstays at this level for the next 20 years. These days, somewhat depressingly, it’s a sign of the times that the only people huddled round radios listening to the draw at my workplace are blues – for whom the Champions League is still a novelty. Quite literally, it’s just another day in the office for the majority of reds.
The fact that a place at European football’s top table is now seen as a given by many, is indicative of how spoilt we’ve been over the last two decades. A generation of reds have grown up knowing nothing but success at this level, to the extent that last year’s Europa League aberration was seen as a positive by many seasoned travellers – the opportunity to experience a couple of new grounds as opposed to yet another San Siro or Allianz Arena visit.
United v Real Madrid proves a reminder that once qualification to the knock-out stages has been established, it’s the Champions League that provides the biggest test and indicator of a team’s true potential. Despite not looking anything like ‘vintage’, domestically this United side have racked up an unprecedented points total and enjoy a 9 point lead over City at present. Although nobody is taking anything for granted, only an even bigger fuck up than last year to see us fail to regain the title from here. We look similarly well placed in the FA Cup too, with only Reading at home standing between us and a place in the quarter-finals.
The Real Madrid tie comes along at a time where there are still many questions being asked of this United team. The class of 2013, perhaps unfairly, haven’t won too many plaudits from commentators and journalists as of yet, other than a grudging nod of acknowledgment for our consistency and ability to grind out results when not playing particularly well. Most supporters too, are still to be convinced. The team failed to show when it counted last season and the manner of that capitulation still hurts now. Although there’s been plenty to cheer this term, until that memory is banished, this side will always be compared unfavourably with other great United teams of the Ferguson era. At the moment they remain ‘the one that blew an 8 point lead to City’.
Redemption therefore, is hopefully not too far away if we manage to avoid a repeat disaster and go on to clinch #20 in a couple of months time. That remains the main priority this season and would represent a fantastic achievement, no matter what happens in Europe. Beat Madrid however, and the opportunity to achieve true greatness suddenly opens up. Of course, it’s giddy in excelsis to start talking about trebles in early February, but that’s exactly what will happen should we get through this round. Although it remains ridiculously unlikely, why not? Everything else about this season has seemed weirdly off-kilter, this team proving everyone wrong (not just it’s harshest critics, even its own fans) would be perfectly in keeping with what we’ve witnessed thus far.
Image used with kind permission of calcioretrospective.
Copyright Red News – February 2013