Group Stage Fan Preview: Manchester United
Last time Manchester United appeared in the Champions League, the year was 2015 and Louis van Gaal was at the helm. The Red Devils finished a disappointing 3rd behind VfL Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven, a stark contrast to United’s usual preeminence in European football. However, failure to eclipse the group stage is an unlikely result for the upcoming Champions League campaign, and Mourinho’s men will be hoping to reassert United’s herculean aura in Europe.
The Reds have had a promising summer, securing the signings of Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matić, and Victor Lindelöf. They picked up 6 wins in 7 during their summer tour overseas, defeating both Manchester City and Real Madrid in the process. The prodigal Marcus Rashford looked superb whenever he featured, and United’s new Belgian addition Romelu Lukaku adapted to the side well. Elsewhere, Frenchmen Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial displayed flashes of their true potential, with Pogba’s imposing force dominating the midfield, and Martial’s slaloming dribbling bamboozling defenders. Nonetheless, the Red Devils couldn’t beat Real Madrid a second-time around, falling to the Los Blancos 2-1 in the UEFA Super Cup. The Red Devils were simply no match for the back-to-back CL winners, but they did well to remain in the game and could’ve easily taken the match to extra time if they converted their chances. All in all, preseason gave United fans plenty to look forward to.
2 matches into the Premier League, the Red Devils sit atop the table with 6 points. Two consecutive 4-0 wins have impressed, but they have only been against the likes of West Ham and Swansea. Some takeaways include the emerging partnership of Matić and Pogba, the goalscoring threat of new boy Romelu Lukaku, and the impressive cameos by Anthony Martial. Mkhitaryan has recorded 4 assists, and Eric Bailly and Phil Jones have proven to be a solid center back duo. Mourinho’s side look to have a deadlier attacking threat compared to last season, and the team is firing on all cylinders.
How They Got Here: Although United only finished in 6th in the Premier League, the Red Devils conquered the Europa League last season to secure a place in the 2017-18 Champions League. A 2-0 victory in Stockholm over AFC Ajax in the final capped off an imposing Europa League campaign, and cemented a place in the CL for United.
Who To Watch:
David de Gea: United’s Spanish shot-stopper is a vital part of the defense. His lightning-fast reactions could prove to be the difference between a win and a loss. His Champions League experience (28 matches) will be an important factor for the 26-year-old.
Paul Pogba: United’s illustrious Frenchman. A subpar debut season attracted a plethora of critics, but the start of the new season has been promising, to say the least. His creativity will be essential to cracking deep blocks at Old Trafford, especially when looking back at how United struggled for goals at home last season. 32 appearances in the CL means he’s definitely has the experience, and he will be looking to prove his price tag.
Anthony Martial: The Frenchman who has fallen out of favor. In only 25 minutes this Premier League season, Martial has already recorded 2 goals and 1 assist. Mourinho may be forced into rotation with the CL, and the 21-year-old could prove to be a crucial piece of the puzzle. He impressed in his last CL campaign with United, and will look to do the same this season.
Romelu Lukaku: No Champions League experience. The big-money Belgian has already shown he can excel in the Premier League for United, but it is yet to be seen if he can succeed in Europe. With United’s relatively easy group, Lukaku will hope to hit the ground running against susceptible opposition. He may struggle to adapt to the rigor of the Champions League, but he now has a platform to prove himself against Europe’s elites.
SL Benfica: Probably United’s closest competitor. Last year’s Primeira Liga champions have faced the Red Devils 6 times in the Champions League, most recently in 2011. United have only lost once against the Portuguese champs, and recently raided them for Swedish defender Victor Lindelöf. However, Benfica have an impressive record against English sides. They made it all the way to the quarterfinals in last year’s CL, are a consistent European performer, and will prove to be a tough matchup on the road. United should be looking for a win in England, and anything but a loss during their visit to Portugal, but Rui Vitória’s men could sneak on upset on the Red Devils.
Players to Watch: Alejandro Grimaldo, Pizzi, Raúl Jiménez
Basel: The only Swiss team in the competition. Basel boast an impressive record against the English giants, only losing once in 4 meetings. They famously toppled the Red Devils in 2011, topping the group where United were eliminated after a 3rd place finished. Ever since that year, their European form has sharply declined, and they are no longer such a formidable underdog. Nevertheless, Basel hold a noteworthy record against English teams, a record they will be looking to improve upon. Basel has only reached the knockout rounds once in their CL history, so it is unlikely for them to be advancing out of Group A. Mourinho’s men should be looking to pick up 6 points from their meetings, and the Swiss team shouldn’t pose too big of a threat to United.
Players to Watch: Mohamed Elyounoussi, Ricky van Wolfswinkel
CSKA Moskva: The Russian side that has never beaten United. They sneaked into the Champions League by defeating AEK and Young Boys in the qualifying round. Manager Viktor Goncharenko will be looking to take the Moscow club to the knockout stages, a feat only achieved by the club two times. The two clubs last met in 2015, and United picked up 4 points from their 2 matchups. Historically, CSKA has struggled for results against English sides, but usually manage to keep things close. Mourinho will be looking for 2 wins, and nothing less.
Players to Watch: Aleksandr Golovin, Vitinho
My Prediction: Group A winners.
United shouldn’t struggle to top their group and move on to the knockout stages. Beyond that, it will be interesting to evaluate the Red Devil’s performances against the upper echelons of European clubs. A trip to the quarterfinals is on the cards, but anything beyond should be deemed as the cherry on top of the cake.