Manchester United and Erik ten Hag must face Champions League truth as hopes hang in the balance

The aims were subtly shifted. Erik ten Hag tried to argue that he did not contemplate the consequences of failure. And yet, as Manchester United may be powerless to prevent ejection from the Champions League, Ten Hag did not refer to the competition by name. United could be plunged into the Europa League. Lose to Bayern Munich and it is guaranteed they will be out of all continental competitions. Ten Hag did his best to sound upbeat but downgraded his targets.

“What I know is I never think of a negative scenario, we think positive,” said Ten Hag. “We know what to do, we have to win to stay in Europe, it’s about that.”

In part, that reflects a plight United have created by conceding the second most goals in the Champions League. Even victory against Bayern would only keep them in the premier European tournament if there is a draw between FC Copenhagen and Galatasaray. Draw with the serial German champions and they will finish fourth in Group A if there is the same result in Denmark; in addition, if United were to finish level on points with the Turkish team, they would be below them on their inferior head-to-head record.

All of which explains why he seems to have turned his sights to the Europa League, to a competition United seemed to have escaped by finishing third in the Premier League, to one where they had a slog of 12 games – no fewer than four in Spain – last season and still did not even reach the semi-finals.“It’s not in our hands but we want to stay in Europe,” added Ten Hag.

United’s identity dictates they have to; their league position – sixth – suggests they will be back in action on Thursday nights next season. And yet a glimpse at the various group tables indicates how ignominious a Champions League exit would be. Take out the resident pool of death, and two of AC Milan, Newcastle and Paris Saint-Germain will not qualify, and there would be no remotely comparable casualty at this stage. Sevilla and Benfica are also underachievers propping up their pools, but they have neither United’s budget nor their expectations.

And so Ten Hag avoided all mentions of the Champions League. He can excel at message discipline. The question more is if the message is convincing. “We have also a very good performance and highs and if we get it and are in the right spirit then we are able to do it and beat any opponent,” he claimed. Yet their best victims, according to the Premier League standings, are Fulham, in 10th. “The game against Chelsea, the game against Everton, even the game against Galatasaray: I know this team can perform at really high levels,” Ten Hag rationalised. “It’s not that we did it three months ago: we did it last week.”

Ten Hag heads into a crucial week following a 3-0 defeat to Bournemouth (Getty Images)
Ten Hag heads into a crucial week following a 3-0 defeat to Bournemouth (Getty Images)

Bayern were twinned in embarrassment on Saturday, Thomas Tuchel’s team losing 5-1 to Eintracht Frankfurt when United went down 3-0 to Bournemouth. But Bayern have not lost a Champions League group game since a 2017 loss to Paris Saint-Germain, some 39 matches ago. United began well in Bavaria in September, conceded first courtesy of an Andre Onana error and ended up flattered by a 4-3 scoreline.

Thus far, Ten Hag has picked five different back fours in five Champions League games, while three different players have begun as the most defensive midfielder. That instability, often caused by injury, is his explanation for United’s inconsistency.

United’s hopes are out of their hands ahead of hosting Bayern (Action Images via Reuters)
United’s hopes are out of their hands ahead of hosting Bayern (Action Images via Reuters)

They had greater continuity last season and better results. “We had a regular team, not so many changes, I think especially in our backline,” Ten Hag said. “We had [for] a long time a regular formation and that helps.” That nevertheless highlights his decision to relegate Raphael Varane to last-choice centre-back. The Frenchman started when United got their lone shutout, at home to Copenhagen, though also in the 3-2 loss at Old Trafford to Galatasaray.

They lost a lead then, while they went 2-0 up in their last two matches and ended up with a lone point to show for it. Scott McTominay, one of their scorers in Turkey, nevertheless touted their “big characters”. He argued United’s problems are not caused by unrest in the dressing room. “It’s not just a case like with some of the other managers where it’s been a little bit toxic at times,” said the midfielder.

That could produce a different conclusion – that United simply have not been good enough – and it would not be the first time. Since their last Champions League semi-final, in 2011, United have finished third in the group three times, in 2011-12, 2015-16 and 2020-21. “It is not always sunshine and rainbows,” said McTominay, a member of the 2020-21 team. And the danger is that United’s chances of remaining in the Champions League were washed away by Galatasaray’s comeback in the deluge in Istanbul two weeks ago.