Despite a valiant performance and a victory, United are out of Champions League competition—dumped by Bayern Munich courtesy of the away goals rule.
United gambled on the fitness of Wayne Rooney, and fielded a youthful midfield that took the challenge of Bayern with gusto in a blistering first half.
Three goals to the good within 41 minutes and the Red kingdom must have looked forward to a famous victory and progress to another European semifinal against Lyon.
But familiar defensive frailties allowed Bayern’s Olic to sneak a goal just before half time.
It got worse for United when fullback Raphael was sent off just after the interval for wrestling with the French international, Franck Ribery. It was the Brazilian’s second bookable offence.
Some 20 minutes later, a scorching, brilliantly-executed Arjen Robben volley direct from Ribery’s corner, led to dancing in the streets of Bavaria.
United’s failure to progress should haunt manager Sir Alex Ferguson throughout his remaining time at United. There can be few excuses.
Ferguson will look at his team’s performance tonight and wonder why he was unable to coax similar exuberance and professionalism last week.
The manager may not regret fielding the oldest-ever United Champions League side in last week’s away fixture but should rue substituting two midfielders for two attacking players when perhaps a more cautious approach ought to have prevailed.
The aftermath of a bitter defeat will lead to much finger-pointing, both at Old Trafford and in the media.
Ferguson has already sniffed out a distraction and is now blaming referee Nicola Rizzoli for his allegedly rash decision to send Raphael from the field.
Such mind games are unlikely to survive the fall out from United’s painful and, yes, self-inflicted failure to progress further in this year’s competition.
United were beaten by a Bayern side that showed a professional appetite for the game and took its chances when they came, qualities which Ferguson’s team failed to match.
Sir Alex, having ruled out a major infusion of new talent this summer, may take some comfort from the evidence that Valencia is an international class United player.
He will look at the transformation of Nani from wastrel to sometime wonder and hope for a similar change in fortune from the peripheral Berbatov and the injured midfielder Anderson.
It is in midfield and defence where the manager’s thinking should now be concentrated.
The rearguard is old. Its refreshment is already underway. Evans is primed for more outings in central defence, but a reliable understudy for Evra at left-back is long over-due.
In midfield, the future may be bleak for Michael Carrick. There was little improvement on his poor game last week in Germany. When United needed him most this evening, Carrick mislaid his shooting boots when presented with clear opportunities against back-peddling Bayern opponents and his timing and diligence were mostly wayward.
The England midfielder should have done better when vainly challenging Olic in United’s penalty area for Bayern’s 43rd minute opener. He might have been closer to Robben too when the Dutch international broke Red hearts with a strike of technical majesty that will live long in the memory.
Blame will surely seek out the fullback, Raphael, also. The youngster, preferred to the more pedestrian Neville, justified his selection with some sterling forward runs in the first half.
He then ruined the good impression made by foolishly tangling with his French tormentor under the referee’s nose. No ranting from his manager should disguise such an absence of football intelligence.
Once Raphael was off the field, United could not prevent Bayern from dominating possession.
The dye was cast as soon as Bayern’s fullbacks began their untroubled forward raids and United’s midfield failed repeatedly to close down the offensive forays of Robben and Ribery.
Such is the quality of Champions League football, that a 10-man United team always seemed likely to concede at least one goal to a German opposition fielding the fit and in form Ribbery and Robben, conductors-in-chief of a 40 minute onslaught.
With Rooney unable to continue beyond the 55th minute due to injury and his team a man down, United’s goal threat diminished.
Though winger Nani enjoyed his evening’s work and might have increased two marvellous goals to a hat trick, the United coaching staff may wince at the team’s overall predictability.
They should recognise the need for artists as well as house painters if the team is to continue to compete against Europe’s best.
The long diagonal ball to Valencia must have been noted by every coach in Europe. A Plan B is desperately needed. Breaking the deadlock on nail-biting occasions such as this was what Dimitar Berbatov was signed to do. The Bulgarian’s repeat failure to show up for duty when most needed should lead to a session or two under Ferguson’s famous hairdryer.
Next season is critical for the Bulgarian. Wayne Rooney, after a long and magnificent season, should not be expected to carry the side again. Able lieutenants are needed, despite Ferguson’s sophistry in blaming his reluctance to enter the transfer market on the lack of reasonably-priced attractions.
Whilst this focus is on United’s shortcomings, praise is due to Louis van Gaal’s Bayern side. Here again, the value of an excellent coach was underlined.
Few gave Bayern a prayer when the draw was announced. Suspensions, injuries, loss of form and some previous and unlikely German comedy defending made United overwhelming favourites.
Yet, van Gaal was spot on with his tactics in the first game, helped of course, by United’s acquiescence and a terrible lack of concentration late on in the Allianz Arena.
Bayern were overpowered by United for the first 30 minutes of the return game but gradually clawed their way back into the match to leave Old Trafford with a notable triumph.
Honours rightfully go to Bayern who must now be favourites to reach this year’s Champions League final in Madrid.
United are left cursing the referee and nursing the heaviest of regrets.