In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the UEFA Super Cup was never going to be an even contest.
Real Madrid – Spanish and European champions, with several of the world’s finest players in their ranks – had simply dispatched, with the minimum of fuss, a side that finished sixth in the Premier League in 2016/17.
Quite frankly, this was a match between two teams who currently exist on very different levels.
Before kickoff, however, it had been easy to buy into the hype. The swirling storm of hyperbole that is the Premier League publicity-machine made us believe that its biggest brand-name was capable of competing with what is arguably the planet’s best team.
Man Utd, we thought, are truly back at the top table. They are ready to conquer Europe. Notwithstanding the mediocrity of the previous season, morale had been starting to soar. They’d spent a rake of cash on big-name players, boast a world-class manager and, as their legion of spin doctors are always keen to point out, maintain a global fanbase.
All things pointed to a fight between equals in Skopje. Except it quickly became apparent that, despite splashing the GDP of a minor nation on the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matić, United’s playing staff was woefully inferior to that of their opponents.
If anything, United looked outdated – perhaps a consequence of their coach’s insistence on besieging his sides with an underdog mentality.
Real, meanwhile, operated with an almost casual assurance. They resembled a first-tier team holding at arm’s length a plucky outsider from a lower division; with the patience of the competent, they simply awaited their foe’s inevitable collapse. The technique, pace, organisation and fluidity they displayed contrasted vividly with the basic bitchness of Jose Mourinho’s side.
The English outfit were all straight lines, long balls and physical power, a dull and frustrating counterpoint to the feast of lateral movement, sharp turns, immaculate touches and firm passing served up by Modric and Co.
Only sporadically were Madrid forced out of third-gear, yet still contrived to indicate their vast superiority – and all this without even bothering to bring their best player off the bench until the 82nd minute.
United will improve as the season continues, and could well be right in the mix when it comes to the Premier League title-race. But on this showing, they are significantly behind the best that Europe has to offer.
A genuine tilt at the Champions League looks far beyond them.
In a wider context, there are some worrying implications for the Best-League-in-the-World Brigade. England’s finest, it would appear, are still languishing in the wake of the continent’s super-clubs.
As Miguel Delaney pointed out in the Irish Independent, United “won’t face a side anywhere near this good in the Premier League.”
Of course, by the time the latter stages of the Champions League roll around, the situation may have altered considerably. Come April 2018 we might even end up hailing the dominance of the Premier League, but based on the evidence currently available, that seems a highly unlikely scenario.
For Mourinho and his players, it is perhaps becoming apparent that in 2017/18 their ambitions may not extend much further than mere domestic consolidation.