Manchester United’s limitations were laid bare as Atletico Madrid did a classic Champions League number on them to snuff out their slender hopes of success for another season.
United’s limitations mean a last-16 exit is about par for the course given their current reduced status. And those limitations mean their only hope of anything resembling salvation from this mess of a campaign rest on finishing in the Premier League’s top four.
It will also be the measure of whether the experiment of handing Ralf Rangnick the levers of control can be judged a success – albeit a very qualified one – because if United do not overhaul Arsenal or any other contenders, then it must be deemed a failure.
Manchester United are currently a point behind Arsenal, who lie fourth, but have played three games more and do not present a convincing case that they can climb that particular hill.
In an ironic twist, just as United’s players trudged off after a 1-0 defeat that carried every hallmark and characteristic of Diego Simeone’s streetwise Atletico, television screens at Old Trafford were showing images of Ajax coach Erik ten Hag.
Here was the visionary touted by many as the ideal candidate to drag United out of their current no-man’s land, but who had just presided over Ajax’s own last-16 exit after a home loss to Benfica. Ten Hag has a track record but hardly comes with a guarantee.
This had the feeling of a watershed moment for those in charge at Manchester United.
Yes, we have all seen this movie before with Atletico Madrid. They defend magnificently. They spoil with well-practised dark arts, then dig you on the counter-attack before dropping deep and erecting the sort of defensive barricade on which so many have floundered over the years.
United were full of effort but showed little guile. Once the early storm had blown itself out and Renan Lodi headed what would prove to be the decisive goal, the beneficiary of non-existent marking, Atletico had United pretty much where they wanted them.