Together at the summit of the Premier League table, the thought of the last 32 of Europa League, rather than the glamorous knockout stages of the Champions League, provides the stark contrast by which Manchester City and Manchester United must define their seasons.
After winning the FA Cup last season, and qualifying for the Champions League, sky looked to be the limit for Roberto Mancini’s side. Their impressive early form in the league has seen them go from potential title contenders to favorites, with their unbeaten run only recently with an away defeat to Chelsea.
The Citizens’ 6-1 humiliation of their biggest rivals must have felt like a dream for the supporters who have so long had to play second fiddle to the red half of Manchester.
Their unmatched riches have allowed the Italian manager to assemble a squad with more depth, if not yet quality, than arguably any side in the world.
Their failure to progress from a Champions League group containing Napoli, Bayern Munich, and Villarreal will surely frustrate, but it is more of a growing pain that comes with the growth process.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s quarter-century of dominance at the helm of United will surely be the blueprint on which Mancini’s own designs are based, and for this reason, their failure comes as a test much more serious.
Ferguson’s side is among the very best in the world, a notion that is supported by their status as the reigning English champions.
Their defeat to Barcelona, widely considered to be the best side ever assembled, was honorable and hard-fought, and European runner-up is certainly a hard accolade to top.
Their group – Benfica, FC Basle, and Otelul Galati- brought about the usual moans in regards to their perceived propensity for getting easy draws.
While City were always tipped to struggle in their group, United were expected to stroll. Even with their mistakes, including taking just two points off the Portuguese outfit and drawing at home to Basle, a simple draw in Switzerland would have been enough to see them through to the last sixteen.
A 2-1 loss was nothing short of a disaster for the Red Devils, and some have begun to question whether the long-time boss has the patience and ability to yet again bring in a new generation of players to keep their all-conquering ambitions realistic.
In this light, the Europa League could prove to be a crucial competition for both clubs, albeit for different reasons.
Just a few years ago, the prospect of Manchester City in the final of a European competition would have seemed outlandish, and any fan of the club would likely have bitten the hand off of whoever offered that scenario.
And while they might have been dreaming of descending upon the Allianz Arena in May, rather than the National Arena in Bucharest, it is important to keep the recent progression of the club in mind.
City and Mancini may feel that they have unfinished business in the competition after bowing out in the last 16 to Dynamo Kiev last year, and the Europa League also offers an outlet for Mancini to bring in new players, keep fringe players fit and happy, and win another trophy.
The likes of Adam Johnson, Stefan Savic, Nigel De Jong, and Edin Dzeko are all worthy of starting week-in, week-out at almost any other club in the world, and they will surely relish their chance to make an impression on the manager.
Players not in the long-term plans will also be given the chance to prove their worth to any suitors.
Likewise, with City currently top of the table, a potential haul consisting of the league crown and the Europa League, with their FA Cup and the League Cup hopes also still alive and well, will surely be considered a success.
But even getting into the last 16 will be a big challenge for City. Last year’s winners FC Porto were drawn out of the hat, and are far from the ideal opposition.
Without Andre Villas-Boas, the Portugese champions do not look as close to invincible domestically as they did last season, but they have a talented core of players including Hulk, Joao Moutinho, Helton, and Alvaro Pereira, all of whom have been linked with big-money moves to Europe’s top clubs.
Nevertheless, instead of collapsing like they did in last year’s debacle against Kiev, City can show how much they have improved their self-belief and chemistry by disposing of Porto and making a run to the final.
For the legendary Ferguson, participation in Europe’s secondary club competition was seen as an unwanted “penalty” to the club he has worked so hard to bring to the top.
Even a relatively successful draw, against Dutch giants Ajax, will do little to lift the gloom surrounding his squad after their incredible exit to Basle on the last day of the group stages.
A mounting injury crisis will show without doubt whether Ferguson will actually attempt to add the the trophy as an unlikely conquest in his vast cabinet, or simply throw out the kids come what may.
It seems likely that Ferguson will take up the second option, at least to begin with. Ajax will not roll over by any means, with the scalp of Manchester United perhaps more of an incentive than one that can be found in the Eredivise for Frank De Boer’s side, who won their league last season. United may not have the financial backing of City, but they will still be able to put out a competent team with a mix of experience and youthful promise.
Anders Lindegaard will likely get another chance to keep fit and press his claims for the number one spot over David De Gea, who has been shaky at times.
Michael Owen, Tom Cleverley, Javier Hernandez, and the Da Silva twins are all injured and slated to make their returns in the new year, and the Europa League is a perfect chance to bring them back to fitness.
Lesser-used squad members like Darron Gibson and Mame Biram Diouf could also get their chance to re-assert their first-team credentials, and youth stars like Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba could be given run outs as well.
For this reason, their participation can be deemed a success if positives are taken from the experience, even if they fail to win the trophy.