Manchester United were cast into the Champions League wilderness in Munich, Germany, on Wednesday night. And it looks a long way back.
In the Allianz Arena, they were dumped out of this season's competition by a superior Bayern side. Back at home, they are in grave danger of missing out on a place in next year's tournament.
Without a trophy or Champions League football, the worst-case scenario when David Moyes took over from Sir Alex Ferguson has become reality. It is a nightmare for a club of United's size and ambition.
In the aftermath of another disappointing night—there have been far too many this season—attention turned to how Moyes and United might force their way back into Europe's top-club competition.
They will do it with a fourth-place finish in the Premier League next season. But that's the very minimum requirement. And it's not guaranteed.
For some, Liverpool's title challenge this season has come out of the blue. But they gave notice of the direction they were going in at the end of last season, losing just one of their final 12 games. They've been in form for nearly 18 months.
United, under Moyes, are still horribly inconsistent. The defeat to Bayern this week was almost a microcosm of their season. One step forward thanks to Patrice Evra's goal, then three steps back.
There has been very little in the last three months to suggest United are ready to hit the ground running in August. Of course, that might change over the final five games, although the trip to Everton, Moyes' former club, is looking awfully treacherous.
The game at Goodison Park is at least a chance for United's manager to show he is developing a plan for the big games. Of the Premier League's top eight, Moyes has only beaten Arsenal this season. There have been heavy defeats to Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Moyes must learn quickly. When a toddler tips a bowl of spaghetti over his head, you can put it down to inexperience. If he's still doing it when he's 16, you've got a serious problem.
The Scot has to learn how to win the big games. He is already starting to wear his poor record like an albatross around his neck.
United's success next season will, naturally, depend on how well Moyes and Ed Woodward perform in the transfer market this summer.
They will hope they can conclude their business early, because with each passing day, the fans will get more and more anxious. United can't afford another year where they're running around on deadline like a drunk on the pull at closing time.
But new signings won't solve everything. United threw money at their problems in midfield last summer and could only come up with Marouane Fellaini.
First, there has to be a plan—a direction. Only then can you sign players to fit into it.
Moyes and United can't afford more than one season without Champions League football.
A top-four finish next season is the very least that is expected. Fourth, or even third, place next May should still be considered a disappointment if that's the only thing there is to shout about. Even if it is an improvement on seventh.
But that's the burden Moyes accepted when he agreed to take over for Ferguson. It is a measure of how disappointing this season has been that the job looks far harder now than it did nine months ago.
With Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham all planning to strengthen their squads this summer, there is no guarantee of an immediate return to the Champions League.
Moyes' six-year contract has become irrelevant. He now has until December—at the latest—to show he can handle this job. It starts with Everton next weekend.
It's a long way back from Goodison Park to places like the Allianz Arena.
But Moyes must show he's on the right path quickly or risk paying the price with his job.
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