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Man United need Champions League progress to justify super-club standing off the pitch

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Nicol: Absolutely nothing Tottenham could do to stop Ronaldo (0:56)

Steve Nicol shares his thoughts on Cristiano Ronaldo's hat trick in Manchester United's 3-2 win over Spurs in the Premier League. (0:56)

"We are implementing a strategy to win and we will foster a culture of excellence through a world class football environment," boasted Richard Arnold, Manchester United's new CEO, when the club announced their financial results earlier this month. It was the latest edition of what's long become a familiar theme during conference calls with their investors. Best in class, world beating, excellence, record-breaking... but for a decade now, it's rung hollow.

When United kick off against Atletico Madrid at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, they will attempt to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League -- the world's top club competition -- for just the third time since 2011. Excellence? Not even close. They are not shy about branding themselves as the biggest football club in the world -- a banner on the website set up specifically for investors even spells this out, saying "Manchester United is the No.1 club in the No.1 sport" -- but on the pitch, there has been little to back it up.

In the 10 seasons since reaching the Champions League final in 2011, United have won just two knockout ties in the competition; against Olympiakos in 2014 and Paris Saint-Germain in 2019. (For context, over the same period Chelsea have won 10 Champions League knockout ties, with Manchester City and Liverpool on nine. And that's just their Premier League rivals.)

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"Of course it's a surprise," said Brazilian defender Alex Telles on Monday when asked about their recent record. "United always need to think about winning every competition they enter. We're not very happy with the past few years, but we've worked really hard to better that and I think this year we have an opportunity to change things.

"To change this we need to train well and win games and tomorrow we have an opportunity to change this."

Man United remain convinced they belong in a group of super-clubs (many of whom also bought into the European Super League effort of 2021) alongside Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus, yet Real Madrid have won 24 knockout ties in the Champions League since 2011. Bayern Munich aren't far behind on 22. In the latest Deloitte Money League, which ranks clubs by revenue, United were fourth on the list behind Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern, but in a purely sporting sense, they are nowhere near.

Atletico Madrid are ranked 13th, but in the past 10 years, they've won two domestic titles and reached the Champions League final twice. It's the kind of success that, at the moment, United can only dream of. Though it's not for a lack of trying.

United's gross transfer spend over the past 10 years is £1.4 billion, just behind Chelsea (£1.6bn) and Manchester City (£1.5bn), but ahead of Liverpool (£1bn) and Arsenal (£1bn). The wage bill for 2021 alone was £323 million, again behind Manchester City (£355m) and Chelsea (£333m), but also more than Liverpool (£314m).

There are legitimate questions to be asked of the owners, the Glazer family, who plunged the club into debt to buy it in a leveraged takeover in 2005. They regularly take out dividend payments running into the tens of millions without injecting any of their any money, and they've been largely anonymous throughout their reign at Old Trafford, but for years now United have punched significantly below their substantial financial might.

It has reached the point that midfielder Paul Pogba is prepared to turn down one of the most lucrative contracts the club has ever offered to leave on a free transfer in the summer and go in search of trophies elsewhere. The five full seasons since his return as the most expensive player in the world, in 2016, have yielded winners' medals in the League Cup and the Europa League -- two secondary competitions, by anyone's standards.

Regardless of the result against Atletico in Manchester on Tuesday night, United find themselves at another crossroads.

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Speaking on the same investor call as Arnold two weeks ago, football director John Murtough said it was vital the next permanent manager, who will take over in the summer, got the club "back to challenging for domestic and European titles," but it's easier said than done. A glance at the Premier League table shows United in fifth and in a battle to just qualify for the Champions League next season. Manchester City and Liverpool are 19 and 16 points clear, respectively, and recent history suggests the gap will only have increased by the end of the campaign. Since winning their last title under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, United have finished an average 22 points behind the champions.

It should be little wonder that some of the candidates Murtough has in mind for the top job are nervous about agreeing to stake their reputations on making the club's lofty expectations a reality.

There is no quick fix for a decade of decline, even if a revamped Champions League format ends up offering them a surer path. For now, interim boss Ralf Rangnick says that when they walk out to face Atletico, he just wants United "to show we can compete with the best teams" after so long in the Champions League wilderness. It's a far cry from Arnold's ambitious promises about a golden future, but a place in the quarterfinals would, at least, represent a small step closer to regaining their seat at Europe's top table.