Like vultures circling over a man staggering through the Sahara, there was a queue of rivals, pundits and even United fans waiting to pounce on the carcass of Jose Mourinho following his side’s unceremonious dumping from the Champions League.
United fans were understandably angry at how their side which had defeated Liverpool with relative ease just four days earlier, capitulated so badly to a team currently occupying the dizzy heights of 5th place in La Liga, sandwiched between those footballing titans Villareal and Valencia.
A full 27 points behind Barcelona.
Tuesday night’s clash at Old Trafford should have been a formality, a routine victory for a United side that some had whispered may even be the dark horses for the competition, although donkeys would have been a more appropriate equine analogy.
The warning signs weren’t heeded from the first leg where United faxed in their performance en route to a nil nil draw so boring it nearly made UEFA consider abolishing the competition.
Perhaps it’s due to being out of the Champions League for two years that Mourinho and United fell into the trap of complacency that comes when facing a side that isn’t a Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, although on Tuesday’s evidence a Barnsley or a Real Ale pub team XI would have been too tough a test for the Reds to overcome.
The Champions League doesn’t afford you a hiding place if you’re not at the top of your game and for reasons that are currently being dissected by fans across the world, Mourinho decided to take what turned out to be a fatal gamble with his team sheet and his supporters’ sanity.
News of Marouane Fellaini’s inclusion in United’s starting XI was met by fans with the same enthusiasm normally reserved for a trip to the STD clinic.
The Belgian, who’s hardly played any football over the past four months and has looked a liability when he has, was preferred to young Scott McTominay who’s excelled in his absence.
It wasn’t just Fellaini’s return to the first team that raised a few eyebrows, especially when his main contribution in the recent win over Liverpool was almost giving away a needless penalty, the omission of both Juan Mata or Paul Pogba seemed destined to deny United some of the creativity they needed to progress.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the fact just days after his exploits keeping the most lethal winger on the planet quiet, 32 year-old Ashley Young started while Luke Shaw didn’t even make the bench, seemed naÃ¯ve at best and woefully stupid at worst.
When all’s said and done though, a front four of Romelu Lukaku, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Alexis Sanchez should have been enough to tear Sevilla apart and they almost did for 90 seconds at the start of the game.
Once Sevilla had weathered the storm of that initial quick passing, one touch, attack the game descended into the bore fest it had been at The RamÃ³n SÃ¡nchez PizjuÃ¡n Stadium, a first half so poor it made a mockery of the moniker Champions League, ‘miles away from being Champions’ League would be more apt, but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
The second half was expected to offer more of the same if not a better effort from the home side, but instead it was Sevilla who emerged as the more potent force, even the introduction of Pogba couldn’t swing the game in United’s favour.
Somewhat ironically it was Vincenzo Montella’s substitutions that made the difference as Ben Yedder struck twice in five minutes less than two minutes after entering the pitch, an impact the hapless Pogba could only watch in envy as the Frenchman, who may still be carrying an injury was quite frankly abysmal.
By the time Lukaku struck with six minutes left on the clock it was far too little far too late and merely delayed United’s inevitable exit from the Champions League as many of the Old Trafford crowd, gave up and decided beating the traffic was a far more realistic proposition than beating Sevilla.
Mourinho faced the music in his own humble way by reminding the assembled fourth estate that United were actually a club used to losing in the Champions League and that he’d twice knocked them out, once with Porto while building his reputation and another with Real Madrid while cementing it.
The question on the minds of United fans is whether the manager is living off reputation alone and can his side bounce back from such a demoralising set-back and restore some pride and perhaps the silverware of the FA Cup?
Mourinho can survive being knocked out of a competition most fans felt they were unlikely to win anyway, but a loss to Brighton in the FA Cup this weekend, may just see the vultures circling with just a little more intent.