It’s never fun to lose on a European night. Ask any world football fan and he will tell you: nothing stings quite like elimination from the knockout rounds of the Champions League. The sting is that much worse when victory eludes your side by the narrowest of margins.
So it is with fans of Manchester United and FCG Bordeaux tonight, whose aggregate losses to Bayern Munich and Olympique Lyonnais find England and France’s defending league champions, respectively, eliminated from Champions’ League contention for another season.
Both contests were as close as can be. United entered their match against the visiting Bayern side after losing the first leg in Munich 2-1. However, a young side fielded by Sir Alex exploded to a quick two-goal lead, thanks to a Darren Gibson blast in the third minute and a cheeky flick from Nani off a Valencia cross in the seventh.
A second goal from Nani, again assisted by Valenica, put United up 4-2 on aggregate after 41 minutes, and the prawn sandwiches seemed to taste a bit like a semifinal birth . An Ivica Olic goal just before the half deflated the stadium just slightly, but leading 3-1 at halftime, all seemed well in Manchester.
Meanwhile, at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux’s first half performance sparked a fire of optimism among the home crowd after Marouane Chamakh closed the half with a goal.
Sparkling runs from Benoit Tremoulinas and frustration from the Lyon side, particularly left-back Aly Cissokho, had fans of Les Marine et Blanc primed for a magical evening, and a Bordeaux-Manchester United semifinal seemed likely if the defending French champions could nick just one more goal and United could keep a clean sheet for 45 minutes.
It was not to be for either club. After United fullback Rafael was sent off for a second yellow card in the 50th minute, Arjen Robben’s wonder-volley sank the hopes of the Red Devils, while a sturdy Lyon defense and the hands of French international keeper Hugo Lloris swatted away all traces of Bordeaux’s European dreams.
A few inches here and there might have flipped the results for both losers. Hans-Jorg Butt was just quick enough to swat Nani’s second-half effort for a hat trick away, and Bordeaux captain Alou Diarra sent an unsavable volley from outside the box directly into the cross bar midway through the last half.
The night was certainly a roller coaster for fans of both clubs, and the narrow margin of defeat for both sides will make the results that much harder to swallow. However, there is some solace for each club, and it’s more than mere consolation.
With European competition now over, both United and Bordeaux can focus all of their attention to defending their league titles. Fergie's side trail Premier League leaders Chelsea by just two points, and anyone who has followed English football this year knows that the league lead has been harder to hang on to than wet soap.
Two points is an attainable margin, especially with the injuries Chelsea are suffering, and now that the pressures of a Champions’ League pursuit are off, United will be able to put all of their effort into a defense of their three consecutive EPL crowns.
Likewise, Bordeaux, who have been plagued with injuries recently, can now regroup and try to end their poor run of form in Ligue 1, which many fans argue directly relates to their endeavors in Europe. Les Girondins have dropped eight points in their last four league matches and relinquished their place at the helm of Ligue 1.
Bordeaux now trail Marseille by three points but have a game in hand over the leaders and two games in hand over the rest of France's title contenders. Perhaps this loss can help Laurent Blanc’s side get the rest and recuperation needed to make a final run in their defense of last season’s title, which ended Lyon’s seven-year reign as French champions.
Still, a loss is a loss, and I would be foolish to consider one in the Champions League as a good result. But there is good to be had in both cases, however difficult that realization may be for Bordeaux and United supporters to accept right now.
Nevertheless, I’m willing to bet that if we rewound to August and offered Laurent Blanc and Alex Ferguson league titles and quarterfinal runs in the Champions League, each manager would gladly accept, as would most supporters from both clubs.
I know you play to win the game, but losing isn't always the end of the world. In fact, in soccer, as loss can just as often be the start of a different championship run.
Anyway, aren’t the Champions League semifinalists who don’t feature Leo Messi really just battling for second place?