Champions League Preview: A tough test for the Red Devils?

Champions League football finally returns to Old Trafford on Tuesday. It has only been one season without it but it seems like an eternity following David Moyes’ failure to qualify and then Louis van Gaal ‘s failure to get out of the group stages 2 seasons ago. Jose Mourinho however, will be more hopeful of a good run in the competition after such a positive start to the Premier League campaign. Here I preview United’s opening game, their group, other British interest and who are likely to be big players in the competition.

May not be as easy at it seems

Watching the draw it seemed to be the most competitive tournament for a long time. However, I couldn’t help but think there was a slight illusion with the new method of seedings, meaning clubs like Barcelona, PSG, both Manchester clubs and Atletico Madrid made Pot 2 look slightly stronger than Pot 1. Don’t get me wrong there is high-quality competition and a full strength Real Madrid still look favourites, but outside of that, there are a number of big clubs who will be confident of going deep into the competition.

Luckily for Utd they managed to miss all the big boys from Pot 1, instead landing Benfica who will more than likely be the toughest test in the group. The game also brings up some interesting matchups with Nemanja Matic and more recently Victor Lindelof returning to their former club and Jose Mourinho returning to his homeland. The group is completed with Basel and CSKA Moscow. It is good to note that United have been matched with all of these teams in recent years but not with good memories. CSKA were in their last Champions League group when they failed qualify with both Benfica and Basel making up 2 of the other 3 teams that knocked United out of the group stages back in 2011/12 and failed to beat either home or away. So although the group may look easy on paper, there are danger signs wherever you look.

First up on Tuesday will be the visit of Basel where a comfortable win will be fully expected, especially with United having looked so strong in the opening 4 league games, it is hard to envisage them them slipping up here. I expect Juan Mata to return to the side following his substitute appearance at Stoke on Saturday, where United didn’t look quite as threatening as they did over the first 3 games. Whether this was a fallout from the international break or not, Mourinho will be looking for a quick start in this game and an opportunity to rest some players with a big league game on Sunday when Everton travel to Old Trafford. What will be imperative is that United qualify as early as possible. They have some difficult league games that sandwich some of the latter group games, being able to play some fringe players and keep his squad fresh going into this period would be something the boss will be targeting.

In the other group game, Benfica host CSKA. Benfica would be most people’s pick to qualify along with United and they have had a solid start to their season along with their normal 2 rivals, Porto and Sporting Lisbon, so there seems no reason why they wouldn’t continue into the European campaign.

The other British clubs

Other highlights on Tuesday involve other British interest and both with 2 of the toughest groups in the competition. Chelsea were grouped with Roma and Atletico Madrid, 2 teams that will pose a real threat to their qualification. Luckily for them, they open their account with a home game with Qarabag who are making their debut in the competition and expected to be the group’s whipping boys. Chelsea continued their revival in the league on Saturday with a great win away at Leicester, with Alvaro Morata once again hitting the back of the net and Antonio Conte gradually getting players back to full fitness, no more notable than Eden Hazard. I expect them to win comfortably in the opener but Conte will no doubt need to call on all of his squad’s qualities in order to make a success of the group. Atletico are well known for their Champions League pedigree over the last few seasons and will be favourites to top the group, possibly gaining an advantage following a year’s absence for both Chelsea and Roma. The home fixtures will be crucial for all 3 clubs, with the hope that they can pick up some away points along the way.

If you think Chelsea have it tough then pop over to group B and try to find a path for Celtic to make it into the knockout phase for the first time since 2012/13. Unfortunately, for Celtic they continue to enter the competition in the bottom pot meaning a tough group is always likely and in order to improve their seeding they need to somehow go further into the competition or try to win the Europa League, which may be more feasible. This season’s competition is no different for Hoops fans and probably as hard as it gets, with games against Anderlecht, Bayern Munich and the 2017 summer transfer window powerhouse that is PSG. For Celtic supporters, they have special trips to Munich and Paris to look forward to at least, but Celtic Park will no doubt be rocking on Tuesday night with Neymar, Mbappe and co arriving in Glasgow. Celtic are obviously in fine fettle domestically, still the outright dominant force in Scottish football, but maybe this is where it hurts their European hopes, due to the lack of competition week in week out. Brendan Rodgers has done a fine job and I can see Celtic picking up points vs Anderlecht, who at times against United last season looked a neat and tidy outfit, but with the departure of their star man, Youri Tielemans to Monaco, they maybe don’t pack the same punch as they did. I am struggling to put a case forward for them to pick up many, if any points against the other 2 however, so finishing third and a Europa League place could be their best hope.  

European giants clash first up

Elsewhere on Tuesday in the one remaining group, there is a huge clash of European giants as Barcelona welcome last year’s runners up, Juventus to the Nou Camp. Since being embarrassed in the Spanish Super Cup with defeats to Real Madrid, they have started the league campaign strongly and have brought in a couple of new faces to bolster what seems to be a stale quad. Lionel Messi notched yet another hat trick at the weekend, and Ousmane Dembele made his debut from the bench so they are going into the fixture on a high. These 2 met at the quarter finals stage last season, with Juventus running out comfortable winners across the 2 legs, but I think this will be different this time out. A slightly different approach, more in the Pep mould, has returned to the Barca side and I think Dembele is an excellent signing, all be it way, way over the top financially. I expect Barca to win Tuesday and Juventus to be victorious in the return leg. Both will be expecting to comfortably qualify for the knockout stage but Sporting Lisbon will be the dark horse in the group looking to cause an upset. Either way, United will be looking to avoid any of the 2 qualifying teams from the other 3 Tuesday night groups in the knockout phase, because they are all likely to be top quality.   

Wednesday is just as compelling

Moving into Wednesday, we see the other 3 British sides take to the Champions League stage and if Celtic have a tough group then the difficulty of Spurs’ group is not too far behind. They have the privilege of going up against Apoel, Borussia Dortmund and the reigning champions, Real Madrid. First off, much like Celtic, fans can look forward to some amazing trips and what better way for this young side to see what they are made of than by coming up against the best team on the planet. On a negative note, they failed to make it out of a much easier group last campaign so this will not fill those fans, who would prefer a good cup run, with much joy. However, whereas I think Celtic have no chance of qualifying, I actually give Spurs a real chance (excuse the pun). Dortmund are beatable, especially at home and Spurs possess all the defensive quality to steal at least a point away. That would mean 2 wins against Apoel, would more than likely see them through as runners up. The expectation will be that Real will win all of their games, so this surely has to be the Spurs game plan heading into Wednesday’s opener. They need a quick start and hopefully the Wembley jinx will be forgotten. A draw, however, will not be awful but will put pressure on the away tie against Dortmund. Coming off the back of a great result at Goodison last week, Spurs will be much more positive than if this game had followed the Chelsea or Burnley results and Harry Kane has broken his season’s duck, so everything is in place to put in a good performance.

Much like United, both Liverpool and Man City have been judged to have been given a more favourable draw. City would expect to be too strong for Feyenoord, whereas Shakhtar Donetsk and Napoli will be the toughest test they face, but I would still expect City to win all their home games, to top the group and easily qualify for the group stages. The result on Saturday lunchtime would have given them a huge lift, to go out and demolish one of their rivals as they did against Liverpool is exactly what they would have hoped for heading into another European journey. This would suggest that Liverpool will be feeling pretty low in confidence, however I don’t see it that way. Up until the sending off of Mane, I feel they were the better and more dangerous side, with a better final ball they could well have been leading at the time of the red card. Their defence is still pretty poor, but going forward they remain as good as anyone and with Philippe Coutinho to also come back, they will only get better. They open up against their toughest test, Europa League kings Sevilla. Liverpool fans will remember the last time they faced them in the Europa League final 2 seasons ago, when they were ripped apart by a brilliant second half performance. However, since then they have lost a lot of that side and have been knocked out of last year’s competition over 2 legs by Leicester City, so you would expect Liverpool to win this group, but I don’t see them having a good enough defence or squad depth to go any further.

I for one cannot wait to hear that famous Champions League tune belt out at Old Trafford on Tuesday. I am expecting at least 4 of the 6 British sides to qualify from their groups without too many issues, with Spurs having a good chance of making it 5. I don’t see any dangers to United in the group and would expect a straightforward campaign until after Christmas at least. However, for the first time in a while, finishing top may not guarantee an easier last 16 tie with some big sides more than likely to be finishing runners up. It is great to be back and I think a target of quarter finals is a realistic one for where the current squad is currently. However, over 2 legs, Jose is a master tactician so there is no reason to fear anyone.