With a third of the Premier League season left, Manchester United find themselves in fifth place, six points behind Manchester City and the all-important fourth Champions League spot. It’s not impossible for United to pass City, but given their inconsistency this season it’s unlikely.

Yesterday manager Louis Van Gaal told reporters that personally he would prefer to win the FA Cup, but understood that for the team, winning the Europa League was most important, as it’s by their most realistic route to a Champions League spot for next year. Via The Telegraph:

“But I understand, for Manchester United it is much more important to win the Europa League because it will give us the Champions League.”

[...]

“It is not only my best route, but ours I think.

So of course, United traveled to Herning, Denmark, today to take on FC Midtjylland in the Europa League Round of 32, and promptly lost 2-1. Their troubles began before the game, when keeper David De Gea—the key to their “uh, let’s try and win 1-0” strategy—injured his knee. But his backup Sergio Romero came in and made a number of quite fine saves:

Advertisement

Sponsored

The problem, of course, was that the Danes were peppering Romero’s goal with such dangerous shots in the first place. He wasn’t able to stop a low drive from Paul Onuachui in the 77th minute to make the score 2-1, and United’s inert attack rarely threatened in the final 13 minutes.

It was an away game for United, and they got an important away goal, meaning a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford in a week’s time will be enough to see them through to the next round. But even if they somehow pull it off, does anybody really have any confidence that they can win four more rounds to take the trophy? They weren’t able to make it out of a Champions League group with relative minnows PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moscow, and in the Europa League they’ll encounter even better teams like Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund, Villarreal, and Sevilla.

To throw things further into chaos, Wayne Rooney is the latest big name player to be linked to a highly lucrative move to China. The Mirror reports that an unnamed Chinese club is offering Manchester United nearly $40 million for Rooney at season’s end, and are prepared to pay him a staggering $108 million over three seasons. Whether or not the offer is on the table, the fact that Rooney moving to China isn’t immediately laughed off as outlandish signals how far he has fallen from his peak. And the thing is, United would be very wise to take the offer.

United’s enormous commercial revenue stream means they’ll always have to be reckoned with, but you don’t have to squint anymore to see them falling into Liverpool territory: a former giant in the death spiral of not making Champions League, therefore not getting good players, therefore not making Champions League etc. United have one world class player—De Gea—while Juan Mata can be on his day, and Anthony Martial might yet become one. But that is much closer to the Liverpools, Tottenhams, and Evertons of the world than the Arsenals, Chelseas, and Manchester Citys. And with the Premier League’s new TV deal giving large sums of money to mid-table clubs, United’s financial advantage isn’t as big as it used to be.

Maybe everything is going to be fine. Maybe United have indeed signed Jose Mourinho to be their manager, and the Special One will guide them right back to the Champions League. Maybe there is a clutch of academy talent ready to burst through the door. But for the first time since Alex Ferguson retired, the question isn’t when they will return to the top, but if.


E-mail: kevin.draper@deadspin.com | PGP key + fingerprint | DM: @kevinmdraper