In February, Manchester United reassured investors they would qualify for the Champions League ahead of next season.
It felt, at the time, like kicking a can – or rather, a grenade – down the road. Only now, over the course of the next 11 days, will we discover if the pin remains in place.
For should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team fail to make a return to Europe’s elite competition, then the financial fallout will have the impact of a detonation.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer simply must lead his team into the Champions League next season
However, United currently sit fifth in the table, and are outside of the qualification places
And this just at a time when there are signs of recovery on the pitch, of a team capable of competing once again at the continent’s top table.
There is, of course, the safety net of the Europa League next month, where victory would offer a backdoor into the Champions League.
But they will want to get the job done on domestic shores first, especially as that would afford extra time to press ahead with what are ambitious plans in the transfer market. Jadon Sancho, for example, will only sign for United from Borussia Dortmund this summer if there is the guarantee of Champions League football.
That £109million deal will also be dependent on the club being able to afford it. It is thought United will look to offload the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jesse Lingard to fund part of their close-season business, but their bargaining power on those sales is immediately lessened if their need for the cash is increased.
But then there are the unavoidable consequences of another campaign in the Europa League. Kit sponsors adidas have a clause in their contract that would see United lose £25m of the £75m deal they signed in 2015.
The club’s latest financial figures for 2019 showed that revenues dropped by £67m, largely because of their Champions League absence, which is said to account for £50m in lost prize money and TV income.
Missing out yet again would be a sizeable blow to Ed Woodward and his big plans for United
But that amount would likely edge towards three figures down on 2018 given the added losses incurred by the coronavirus pandemic, not to mention a reduction in the club’s commercial appeal.
That is why events of the past few days have increased the pressure on those players charged with protecting and strengthening the club’s financial future.
Monday’s decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to overturn Manchester City’s Champions League ban – and so removing the comfort of fifth position being enough for qualification – was followed by United surrendering a lead in stoppage-time at home to Southampton.
All of a sudden they are back on the outside peering in on the Champions League places. A final-day trip to Leicester, currently in fourth, already has the feel of a winner-takes-all shootout.
Miss out on the top four and the conclusion of the Europa League becomes about far more than a piece of silverware.
Jadon Sancho would refuse a move to Old Trafford if there is no Champions League football
United are as good as into the last eight following their 5-0 win over LASK Linz in their last-16 first leg, but rivals such as Inter, Bayer Leverkusen and Wolves means passage to the trophy will be no formality.
Another year outside the Champions League would, of course, keep their wage bill in check given that player bonuses would not be incurred.
But there will be a far greater price to pay for that should the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford become agitated by missing out on Europe’s premier tournament.
It is why the team must now come good on Ed Woodward’s previous statement of intent to the club’s investors. If the pin pops, the fallout will be far-reaching.
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