United losing luster on Europe's biggest stage

STEVE DOUGLAS AP Sports Writer Published:

MANCHESTER, England (AP) -- Manchester United has just about faded into European soccer irrelevance.

As Man U waved goodbye to the Champions League for 18 months at least, the reality is dawning on England's biggest club of the last 20 years: It has sunk to second-tier status in Europe.

It's a sign of the times at Old Trafford that reaching the quarterfinals, where it lost to Bayern Munich on Wednesday, was widely viewed as the best United could have hoped for this season. Getting past Bayern was seen by many as an impossible dream, and simply avoiding a rout by the German champions was something to be grateful for.

How things have changed.

From 2008-11, United was the most consistent team on the continent, reaching three finals out of four, winning one. It played some of the most exciting soccer in the competition.

But this was the third straight year the team failed to make the quarterfinals.

The European malaise set in before David Moyes replaced Alex Ferguson last summer and could last for some time, with the new manager in the early stages of his rebuilding job at Old Trafford.

"Watching the Champions League (on television) next year will be difficult to take," United midfielder Darren Fletcher said after Wednesday's 3-1 loss at Bayern, which meant Bayern advanced 4-2 on aggregate. "Hopefully the biggest thing that can do is give you more determination to get back in it.

"It is the pinnacle of club football and Manchester United need to be in this competition."

A Champions League season without United certainly will be strange; the team has been a mainstay of the competition since 1995-96. But with Moyes' side seven points out of the top four in the Premier League with five games remaining, it's a near-certainty.

Limiting its absence to just one year is a priority for Moyes, who doesn't think it will prevent him from attracting big names to the club as he seeks to build a new, competitive side on the home front and in Europe.

"We're looking to spend the right money on players who are available, and it's not anything to do with Champions League," said Moyes, who likely will be granted considerable funds to strengthen his squad in the offseason. "Any players we've quietly discussed it with are more than happy to join Manchester United. They know it's not a long-term thing."

Even if United does get back in to the Champions League on the first attempt, it's likely to be a while before the team has the reputation of old on the European stage.

United played the role of gallant loser against Bayern, conceding possession and relying on the counterattack -- just like a tournament outsider playing more in hope than expectation. At home in the first leg, United had just 26 percent possession and spent most of the game camped on the edge of its own penalty area.

Indeed, nullifying an opponent seemed to suit Moyes, replicating the tactics he often used to great effect at Everton.

"For long periods we made it difficult for them," he said.

Yet, United fans are used to a more attacking approach and will expect much adventure in Moyes' teams once he establishes himself -- provided he is given time by the club.

The fans will also expect trophies, something Moyes cannot offer this season and was unable to deliver in his 11 years at Everton, either.

Having had a first taste of Champions League soccer, Moyes will have to be content with the Europa League -- at best -- next season.

Whether it is in the interests of United to be scrapping away in that second-level continental competition is open to debate. The domestic form of Newcastle and Swansea dipped significantly due to their involvement in the Europa League over the past two years, although United has a much bigger squad to cope with the demands.

It will be a shock to the system playing in Europa League. Then again, things have hardly gone to script in Moyes' tumultuous first season in charge.