Cristiano Ronaldo's fading powers cannot halt Manchester United's Champions League slide

Tame last-16 defeat to Atletico Madrid symptomatic of Old Trafford giants' long decline into also-rans

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The last time Manchester United won a Champions League quarter-final or semi-final, Ralf Rangnick was at Old Trafford.

Admittedly, he was present at the 2011 semi-final as coach of the beaten Schalke side. The fact that is 11 years ago illustrates that United’s underachievement in Europe predates the interim manager, and actually began before the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign.

The eventual verdict on Rangnick’s temporary regime may be that he neither caused the problems nor solved them. For a fifth successive season, United will end up without silverware. For the fifth in nine, they could finish outside the top four.

Their malaise is deep-rooted and yet too many of their own are blinded to it. Since the group stages, and despite all evidence to the contrary, Rio Ferdinand, Peter Schmeichel and Paul Ince had all claimed United could win the Champions League.

Being United alone, being rich and famous and spending fortunes on superstar players, does not qualify anyone for glory.

The reality is that they have only won one knockout game in it in eight seasons, the same number as Basel. However much substance gripes about refereeing and timewasting had, Atletico Madrid were the better team over 180 minutes.

Predictably, they were the more coherent one. That even an Atletico side whose La Liga title defence has been underwhelming were too good was unsurprising: United have one point from four games against England’s top three.

They can call themselves the world’s biggest club, but they are ever further from being or beating the best.

There were snapshots of the modern United. There was a booking for Darren Fletcher, the technical director who was on the touchline but of whom Rangnick said recently that he didn’t really know what his role was.

There was the sight of the so-called "godfather of gegenpressing" sending on Juan Mata to join Cristiano Ronaldo; they are two of the players least likely to press while Mata, who has not been granted a minute of Premier League action this season, was somehow charged with saving United’s Champions League campaign. He didn’t.

Meanwhile, it felt another staging post in Ronaldo’s decline. Part of that is the inevitability of ageing, part the failures of United. Over 180 minutes, the long-time scourge of Atletico mustered two shots, neither on target and neither at Old Trafford.

Manchester United 3 Tottenham Hotspur 2 - player ratings

He used to be irrepressible on such occasions but he has become ineffectual. Saturday’s stunning hat-trick against Tottenham looks the anomaly in his 2022.

Ronaldo had dragged United through the group stages with six goals and sheer willpower. Perhaps, however, the telling part is when his impact came.

He has a record 67 goals in the knockout phase, but none this season or last. For the third consecutive year, his campaign is curtailed before the quarter-finals. An era is ending, for him and Lionel Messi alike.

More so than United, Juventus signed Ronaldo to win the Champions League but each has proof he is no longer as devastating.

He is arguably the greatest player in the competition’s history, certainly since the rebrand in the 1990s, but his 2018 triumph, in his valedictory game for Real Madrid, will be his last.

Perhaps Ronaldo’s Champions League career ended in anti-climax on Tuesday. United are not guaranteed to be in it next season. Perhaps he will not be there.

Indeed, it is hard to say who will be. Rangnick will not be in the dugout. In the future, it may seem strange to reflect that Fred and Anthony Elanga were the only success stories of a Champions League knockout tie for United.

The broader context is that it has been, in David de Gea’s words, “another bad year.” Yet another.

Updated: March 16, 2022, 12:27 PM
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