* European absence to depress Man Utd profit
* Club seeks rapid return to Champions League
* Heavy spending on players rekindles fans’ enthusiasm (Adds target of 3rd place finish, wage costs)
By Keith Weir
LONDON, Sept 10 (Reuters) - Manchester United targeted a swift return to the lucrative Champions League on Wednesday, after forecasting lower profit this season when the English soccer club will be absent from European competition for the first time in more than two decades.
Twenty-times English champions, United will pay the price in this financial year for a season of rare sporting struggles in 2013-14, when the team finished only seventh in the Premier League and failed to qualify for Europe.
Despite that poor form, improved TV and sponsorship deals helped United to report revenue of 433 million pounds ($698 million) in the year to the end of June, and core profit of 130 million, both record figures.
But missing out on a place in the Champions League, Europe’s top club competition, means United expects a decline in revenue to between 385 and 395 million pounds in the current year. Profit is forecast to fall to between 90 and 95 million.
Those estimates are based on the club finishing third in the Premier League, underlining the pressure on new manger, Dutchman Louis van Gaal, to engineer a swift turnaround.
United, majority owned by the American Glazer family, have spent heavily on new players, signing Argentine winger Angel di Maria from Real Madrid and recruiting Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, who joined on loan from Monaco.
“We are very excited about the future and believe it’s the start of a new chapter in the club’s history,” Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward said in a statement.
United’s enforced European exile is set to widen the gap in revenue with their biggest continental rivals.
European champions Real Madrid for instance reported revenue of 604 million euros ($779.6 million) in 2013-14, reinforcing the club’s position as the game’s top earners.
The influx of new players at United, at a total gross cost of around 150 million pounds, has quietened the Glazers’ critics who were angered when the family last month cashed in shares in the club worth around $200 million.
United shares, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, slipped around 3 percent to $15.09 by 1512 GMT, valuing the club at about $2.5 billion.
United made a shaky start to the current season, failing to win any of their three Premier League matches so far and being eliminated from the League Cup, the English game’s third-most important competition after the Premier League and the FA Cup.
However, Woodward said he expected Van Gaal to have the club back competing for titles and trophies after what he called a “challenging and disappointing season”.
There was evidence of the cost of those struggles in the small print of the club accounts. David Moyes, who lasted less than a season as United manager before he departed in April, shared a 5.2 million pound payoff with his backroom staff.
United, whose executives claim 659 million global followers for the team nicknamed the Red Devils, remain a huge attraction for corporate sponsors.
The club signed a 10-year kit supply deal with German sportswear company Adidas AG in July which will be worth 75 million pounds a year when it starts in 2015.
United also sealed a record $559 million deal with General Motors Co to have the group’s Chevrolet brand emblazoned on players’ shirts for the next seven seasons. (1 US dollar = 0.6203 British pound) (1 US dollar = 0.7747 euro) (Editing by Louise Heavens and David Holmes)