Man Utd's worst ever Champions League campaigns - ranked

  • Man Utd have reached four Champions League finals, winning the trophy twice
  • The Red Devils struggled in Europe during the early 1990s
  • United have endured some of their worst campaigns in the competition in recent years
Manchester United's players look sombre after losing to Bayern Munich in 2023/24
Manchester United's players look sombre after losing to Bayern Munich in 2023/24 / James Gill - Danehouse/GettyImages

The two defining figures of Manchester United, Sirs Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson, shared a disciplinarian streak, remarkable adaptability and a fierce fascination with continental competition.

Paddy Crerand, who won the 1968 European Cup under Busby, reflected: "He was obsessed with Europe and all the players were aware of that. We wanted to win it anyway because we wanted to be the best team, but it made it even more important to do it for Matt."

Ferguson lifted the Champions League trophy twice but retired ruing: "We should've won it more."

On this draining quest for European glory, United are doomed to fall short each time they fail to hoist the big-eared pot aloft. Some of the club's Champions League campaigns have strayed further away from success than others, to put it mildly.

Man Utd's worst Champions League campaigns - ranked

11. 2012/13

Alex Ferguson's final European game as Manchester United manager was a defeat to Real Madrid / ANDREW YATES/GettyImages

Final round: Last 16
Record: P8 W4 D1 L3

The dream ending to Ferguson's final campaign in the Old Trafford dugout was one last European trophy to saviour. Yet, that flickering ambition was extinguished by a controversial defeat in the last 16 at home to Real Madrid.

Cristiano Ronaldo, a former United player who viewed Ferguson as a father figure, delivered the telling blow but referee Cuneyt Cakir was held to blame for many by showing Nani a soft red card.

Ferguson was so incensed that he didn't speak to the press. Jose Mourinho, his victorious opposite number, found time to say: "The better team lost."

10. 2004/05

Wayne Rooney, Andrea Pirlo
Manchester United were comfortably beaten by AC Milan in 2005 / Etsuo Hara/GettyImages

Final round: Last 16
Record: P8 W3 D2 L3

United went into the final week of the first phase top of their group ahead of a trip to Turkey to face Fenerbahce, a side they had dismantled 6-2 at Old Trafford six weeks earlier.

Yet, a hat-trick from Tuncay - the second treble United had ever conceded in the competition - consigned Ferguson's side to second place behind Lyon, teeing up a menacing last-16 draw against AC Milan. Carlo Ancelotti's star-studded outfit would reach that year's final and were comfortably superior over each tie, which both ended 1-0 to the Italians.

9. 2021/22

Jaoa Felix
Manchester United were knocked out by Atletico Madrid in the round of 16 / BSR Agency/GettyImages

Final round: Last 16
Record: P8 W3 D3 L2

Each round of Man Utd's 2021/22 Champions League group stage mimicked a lazy Roy of the Rovers storyline conjured by the mind of Ronaldo. The Portuguese forward scored six goals, including four in the final 12 minutes of matches to secure three wins and a draw for United.

Yet, there was no space left in the comic strip for the knockout rounds. As United lost 2-1 on aggregate to Atletico Madrid, Ronaldo was left to walk through the bowels of the Spanish stadium reminding anyone that would listen how many Champions League trophies he had won (five) compared to the capital club (zero).

8. 2017/18

Wissam Ben Yedder
Manchester United were wretched in defeat to Sevilla in 2018 / Michael Regan/GettyImages

Final round: Last 16
Record: P8 W5 D1 L2

Mourinho claimed United's second-place Premier League finish in 2018 was the "greatest achievement" of his trophy-laden managerial career but even the master manipulator struggled to put a positive spin on his side's limp showing in Europe.

After topping a weak group with Basel, CSKA Moscow and Benfica, United delivered a pair of insipid displays in the round of 16 against Sevilla. Fortunate to earn a goalless draw in Spain, United slumped to a 2-1 reverse at Old Trafford. When asked what must change for his side to improve, Mourinho simply said: "Everything."

7. 1993/94

Final round: Second round
Record: P4 W2 D2 L0

United's first taste of Europe's premier club competition since 1968 ended after four games. Before a group stage had been introduced to the format, United bowed out in the second round on away goals after failing to score against Galatasaray in Istanbul.

The English champions were infamously greeted with banners welcoming them to hell and the home fans lived up to their devilish billing. Amid a torrent of insults, flares and flying bricks, Ferguson bemoaned "as much hostility and harassment as I have ever known on a football expedition".

6. 2011/12

Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra
Manchester United became the first Champions League team to reach the final and get eliminated from the group stage in the same calendar year / Jamie McDonald/GettyImages

Final round: Group stage
Record: P6 W2 D3 L1

"Are you serious?" Ferguson asked in astonishment. Man Utd's manager had been quizzed as to why the Premier League's best clubs were struggling in Europe that season. "We're not struggling," Ferguson sneered before abruptly leaving the press conference.

United weren't exactly soaring either. The club's only loss in the group stage proved decisive, as a shock defeat away to Basel in the final round of fixtures condemned Ferguson to a rare group-stage exit - only the club's third in 17 years.

5. 1994/95

Final round: Group stage
Record: P6 W2 D2 L2

Despite dominating the Premier League, United suffered in Europe during the early 1990s. Partly down to the limit on non-British players - only three foreigners, including Irishmen Denis Irwin and Roy Keane, were allowed each game - and the quality on the continent.

Both factors contributed to the 4-0 thrashing United suffered at Barcelona's Camp Nou in 1994. "We were demolished," Paul Parker conceded. "Barcelona gave us a hiding," Keane said of what remains the club's largest European defeat. Ferguson couldn't hide his frustration at "a humiliating experience".

4. 2015/16

Champions Laegue - "Manchester United v PSV Eindhoven"
Louis van Gaal could not avoid a group-stage exit while in charge of United / VI-Images/GettyImages

Final round: Group stage
Record: P6 W2 D2 L2

Chants of "Attack, attack, attack" plagued Louis van Gaal's tenure but they may have been best replaced with calls for defence in the club's final group game.

A calamitous 3-2 reverse against Wolfsburg in Germany ended United's Champions League campaign before Christmas. The disastrous tour of Europe began with a shock defeat away to PSV in which Luke Shaw suffered the leg break that derailed the first three years of the left-back's career at the club.

3. 2020/21

Harry Maguire
Harry Maguire (centre) captures United's anguish during the 2020/21 Champions League campaign / Stuart Franklin/GettyImages

Final round: Group stage
Record: P6 W3 D0 L3

A total of just 2,110 people collectively attended United's Champions League fixtures during the 2020/21 COVID-blighted campaign. While the majority missed out on the highs of defeating Paris Saint-Germain in France and romping five goals past RB Leipzig, they were also spared the calamitous defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir.

The image of Demba Ba trundling unopposed into United's empty half, opening the scoring for Basaksehir in a slow-motion breakaway from a defensive corner, will live long in the memory of any witness, from wherever they watched the mayhem unfold.

Two late goals against Leipzig in the final round of fixtures disguised the gap in class between United and their opponents, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side still exited the competition with a 3-2 loss.

2. 2005/06

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo couldn't help United avoid a desperately poor elimination / Mike Hewitt/GettyImages

Final round: Group stage
Record: P6 W1 D3 L2

Not since a fan unfurled a banner which read 'Ta Ra Fergie' in 1989 had Ferguson's position in charge of United felt as untenable as the winter of 2005.

United were coming off the back of consecutive third-place league finishes and had slumped to bottom place in their Champions League group, below Villarreal, Benfica and Lille. Ferguson's side had been able to muster just three goals in the competition, fewer than 12 individual players that year, including Werder Bremen midfielder Johan Micoud.

Just to pour salt into the open wound, the defeat that decided United's fate came away to Benfica, the same opponents that Busby's legendary vintage had beaten to win the club's first European Cup.

1. 2023/24

Harry Maguire
Harry Maguire shows the anguish of Manchester United's 2023/24 Champions League campaign / James Gill - Danehouse/GettyImages

Final round: Group stage
Record: P6 W1 D1 L4

Erik ten Hag's remit following his 2022 summer appointment was to rid Manchester United of the toxicity in and around the club and raise standards, to begin with, back to semi-acceptable levels.

But after a promising first year in charge, Ten Hag was the man in the dugout for a miserable 2023/24 Champions League campaign. Four defeats in six games, littered with countless individual mistakes, saw the Red Devils exit Europe altogether as they finished bottom of Group A.

The one win they did muster was at home against Copenhagen, but a humiliating collapse in the Danish capital was one of many low points for a United side who conceded a record 15 goals in their six games.

Still, Ten Hag was adamant he had "no regrets" about how things had gone, instead proclaiming that his players must use the experience as fuel to do better.