When Manchester United host Olympiakos Wednesday night it could be the last time for at least 18 months they will hear the distinctive Champions League theme reverberate around Old Trafford.
This stirring tune has become the soundtrack to United’s midweek games in Europe for 18 consecutive seasons since 1996.
Champions League football has simply come to be expected at Old Trafford. It is what the club does; they play in the Premier League at the weekend and the Champions League during the week.
But now in the wake of United’s 3-0 defeat to Liverpool at the weekend, which has left them 12 points behind fourth-placed Manchester City, who have two games in hand, it is looking increasingly likely their incredible run in the competition is coming to an end.
The only avenue left to United to remain in the Champions League next season is to win this season’s competition, but trailing the Greeks by two goals from the first leg, that is also highly unlikely.
Even if United should rouse themselves to overcome Olympiakos, it seems almost laughable in their current form that they could pose a credible threat to Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.
As unpalatable as it may seem, Manchester United have to face the harsh truth they are no longer a Champions League club.
What will it mean to this clearly wounded club next season?
The doom-mongers amongst United’s support automatically believe it will undermine the club’s ability to attract the very best players in transfer market this summer.
As reported by the BBC, before Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford at the weekend, their manager Brendan Rogers warned that, “The best players want to play in the best competition. Any club will suffer the same when they’re not in there. It will hurt you.”
I don't subscribe to the view that the best players will not want to play for Manchester United next season simply because they will not be in the Champions League.
This is Manchester United, still the reigning champions and English football’s most successful club ever.
The truth is, only Barcelona and Real Madrid can genuinely compete with United’s worldwide appeal and glamour.
It is why in the summer of 2012 Robin van Persie chose to join an apparently declining Manchester United, admittedly still in the Champions League, over the newly crowned champions Manchester City, and offers from Italy including from Juventus.
As the Dutchman explained at his unveiling at Old Trafford, as reported by the Daily Mail: “I always listen to that little boy inside me. What does he want? That boy was screaming for Manchester United.”
It proved to be a wise decision for within nine months, van Persie and that little boy had a Premier League winner's medal.
Amongst the leading players in Europe looking for a move this summer, there remain plenty of little boys inside them also screaming to join Manchester United.
These players want to play in front of 76,000 fans at Old Trafford every other week, tread the same turf as Cristiano Ronaldo, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs and weave themselves into the history of the club.
Only six weeks ago Juan Mata arrived at Old Trafford fully aware, even then, that United were in grave danger of relinquishing their Champions League status next season.
When the leading players decide which club to join, they are most influenced by two factors: money and ambition.
The brutal truth is players want to be paid what they are worth and, like any of us, are interested in significantly increasing their wages.
It is why Radamel Falaco swapped Atletico Madrid for Monaco last year, despite the lack of Champions League football this season.
There are plenty of players who would be interested in earning those sort of figures at Old Trafford with or without the Champions League.
The other most salient factor is ambition. So Manchester United will probably not be in the Champions League next season, but players can accept that if they can see that they still have the ambition to challenge for the Premier League and return to the competition the season afterwards.
Money and ambition. This is what allowed Manchester City to assemble a Premier League-title-winning side between 2008 and 2010 without the lure of the Champions League.
Players of the calibre of YaYa Toure, Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Vincent Kompany all moved to City during this era unconcerned by the lack of Champions League football.
If Manchester City without any real track record of success can do it, then it shouldn’t present a problem for their trophy-laden neighbours.
Manchester United’s likely absence from the Champions League next season will certainly not prove a significant obstacle to their rebuilding plans this summer.
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