Gray skies over Manchester

2011-12-08 16:06

London - The mood in Manchester was as miserable as the gray skies over the postindustrial city landscape on Thursday morning.

Just the previous day, Manchester United had been dreaming of a fourth Champions League final in five seasons and Manchester City remained hopeful that the wealth of their Abu Dhabi owners could carry them to the title in their debut season.

The northwest city looked well placed to be crowned capital of European football by the time England's relocated National Football Museum opened there next year.

Instead, Wednesday's elimination of defending Premier League champions United and resurgent rivals City left thousands of fans with little to smile about.

The pair must confine their rivalry to domestic competition and the much-maligned Europa League.

"It is embarrassing to be in the Europa League," United defender Patrice Evra said.

While regional pride was further dented by the progress to the knockout rounds of London clubs Chelsea and Arsenal, at least City can console themselves with the millions of their oil-rich owners and a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League.

With debts that stood at more than £450 million ($700 million) on June 30, United's finances could suffer without the Champions League prize money.

United earned more than €180 million ($242 million) from the Champions League over the past four seasons, reaching the final three times and winning it once. They took €53.2 million ($71.5 million) as last season's runners-up - more than any other club, including winners Barcelona.

That sort of cash makes a huge difference to the balance sheet of a club that paid £51.2 million ($83.4 million) in interest for the 12 months to June 30 on debt still outstanding from the 2005 takeover by the Glazer family.

That in turn could further hamper United's ability to compete with super rich City and Chelsea for players in the transfer market.

Things already looked grim enough on the field for United on Wednesday.

Needing only to avoid defeat at unheralded FC Basel to secure a 15th knockout round appearance in 16 Champions League seasons, United lost 2-1 in Switzerland to finish third in what had seemed to be one of the competition's easier groups.

United missed the firepower of the injured Javier Hernandez and was unable to capitalise on sustained periods of possession and pressure. They also lost captain Nemanja Vidic to what looked to be a serious right knee injury that could spell trouble for their central defence in the weeks ahead.

"Of course we're disappointed," United manager Alex Ferguson said. "There's no other way you can feel. We had so much possession of the ball and so many really good opportunities in the last third of the field. Some of our play up to that point was very good but you have to say we let ourselves down with the finishing part."

Basel progressed instead, leaving United facing the unappetising - and far less lucrative - prospect of playing the second half of the season in the Europa League.

Instead of trips to famous football arenas such as Camp Nou or the Santiago Bernabeu, United - and City - will be playing the likes of Metalist Kharkiv and Legia Warsaw.

Those Thursday matches also mean United's Premier League matches on European weeks will be rescheduled from Saturday to Sunday, leaving them with the pressure of playing catch up on those sides that have already played and won.

"The Europa League is a competition I've never been in at United," said Ferguson, who last month celebrated 25 years in charge of the club. "It does mean one thing: Sundays right through. Thursdays and Sundays. That's got to be dealt with and it's not the best but that's our penalty for not qualifying."

City manager Roberto Mancini, who previously guided Inter Milan to domination in Italy without figuring out how to succeed in Europe, is already looking ahead.

"It is my opinion that we need to improve as a squad to play better in the Champions League than this year," Mancini said. "For us it will be important to improve in the next six months in the Premier League and try to win the Europa League.

"Then next year we can do better in the Champions League. It was our first time in the Champions League and we were in the worst group. It was difficult but we can't change it now."

Four-time European champion Bayerns and Napoli progressed ahead of City, who had been hoping Champions League cash would help them edge closer to meeting UEFA's imminent financial fair play regulations.

"Usually with 10 points, teams always go through - or 99 percent," Mancini said. "But in this group it was not enough."

City can at least further bolster a squad already swollen with world-class talent during the January transfer window to help their Premier League campaign. United's position is less clear, with even the long-serving Evra looking enviously at those 16 clubs that did make it through to the Champions League knockout stages.

"I play for Manchester United to play in the Champions League," Evra said. "Some players dream of playing for United in any competition."