Back in the Europa League – how on earth did it come to this?
One point was all Manchester United needed to reach the last 16 of the Champions League – one point from two games – and yet they just couldn’t manage it.
As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had said, their destiny was in their own hands but the performance they produced in losing 3-2 at the Red Bull Arena on Tuesday night suggested that the Europa League is where his side was always meant to end up.
True, United were placed in the Champions League’s ‘group of death’ but the Grim Reaper didn’t appear until that disastrous defeat in Istanbul in November.
Last week’s avoidable loss to Paris Saint-Germain left them clinging on for dear life, knowing that they needed to avoid defeat at RB Leipzig to survive, but it was Julian Nagelsmann’s players who put the final nail in United’s coffin.
United have shown that they are capable of almighty comebacks and two goals in two minutes in a dramatic second half suggested that the visitors might be set to pull off their greatest escape yet.
However, while their fighting spirit has often bailed them out of jail against mid-table teams, it was always unlikely to work against one of last season’s Champions League semi-finalists.
Solskjaer had joked that United never do things the easy way and they couldn’t have made it much harder for themselves with the awful way they started the game at the Red Bull Arena. They were 2-0 down after only 13 minutes.
Manchester City loanee Angelino made a mockery of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who again showed he is incapable of dealing with balls into the far post, to steal in to open the scoring.
Although Solskjaer had opted for a back five, the German side were finding so much space to exploit at the back, and Amadou Haidara doubled Leipzig’s lead with a free volley as United were left chasing shadows.
Five years to the day since Louis van Gaal saw his United side embarrassingly dumped out of the competition by Wolfsburg, Solskjaer was facing a similar result in Germany.
Whereas United were slow and sloppy, Nagelsmann’s side were well-drilled, fast and neat in possession.
Solskjaer tried to inspire a second-half fightback by switching to a back four during the break and bringing Donny van de Beek and Paul Pogba off the bench to give United a spark of creativity in midfield.
However, just as things were improving, a mix-up at the back between Harry Maguire and David de Gea left the visitors needing three goals to reach the knockout stage.
They nearly pulled it off, with Bruno Fernandes converting an 80th-minute penalty and Pogba netting just second later. This time, though, United had left it too late.
The fine margins will be mentioned. There was that missed Anthony Martial chance against PSG, and here, Peter Gulacsi did well to prevent the ball dropping for Maguire in the 93rd minute, as United desperately tried to force an equaliser.
However, after taking complete control of the group with impressive wins over PSG and Leipzig on the opening two matchdays, United threw it all away.
“We started the game too slowly,” Maguire told BT Sport . “It wasn’t good enough for the first 20 minutes. We weren’t at it and they scored the two chances they got. They put two balls into the box and we failed to deal with them.
“In the second half, they scored with their first attack, from another cross. So, we only have ourselves to blame.”
And he’s right. They were masters of their own downfall and now they’re back where they appear to belong, playing Europa League football on a Thursday night.