From the moment the Champions League anthem rings out at Old Trafford tomorrow night, Manchester United will have effectively overcome the knock-on effects of the David Moyes era. Albeit just a qualifying round, it's been long since United have had to play competitively under the lights against European opposition. Belgian side Club Brugges provide the opposition in what should, on paper, be a negotiable fixture into Europe's premier club competition.
United kept things tidy domestically with another assured defensive display in a 1-0 victory over Aston Villa to remain with a 100% record in the league. Ideally, in these European ties, you'd rather that the second leg, the one that really matters is the home leg. As it turned out for us, United will have to take a considerable advantage into the second leg to avoid the nerves that will come with having a narrow lead in a Cup tie.
Unfortunately, so far this season at least, goals have not been something synonymous with the club. Having opened with just a couple of goals and relatively few clear cut chances in the opening two games, United will have to improve considerably up front if they are to make hay in the first leg. The defensive structure preferred by Louis van Gaal this term seems to have caveated the joy that United will have in the opposition penalty box. The entire XI these days seems to go on about a strict execution of their duties with very limited abandon.
It's just as well though that United's approach could in fact protect them from shipping in what are very costly away goals to give away in two-legged Cup ties. You would rather that if it's to be an even high scoring game, the scoring should be done away from home.
Still, Club Brugge are not the sort of opposition United should struggle to get past. The expectation will therefore be on one team and the onus is therefore on that team to confirm, not prove their right to contest the Champions League group stages.
Club Brugge overcame Panathinaikos in the second round of the qualifiers to make it to this stage of the competition. The Belgian side are in a decent run of form coming into this fixture but were most impressive in a 3-0 second leg victory over the Greek side having had to overturn a deficit of a 2-1 scoreline from the first leg.
Like United, Club Brugge settled their domestic commitments on Friday in the Pro League, beating Kortrijk 2-1 at home setting them up in good stead for their first ever meeting with Manchester United. A 4th place position on their domestic log is however more down to their European commitments than their inability to make light of a less than testing league.
We've never really had the opportunity to see how Louis van Gaal would fare with his extravagant tactics in Europe. Often times, he has been criticised for treating basic domestic games with the same tactical sophistication as managers normally reserve for European games. It'll therefore be interesting of United set up differently from how they do in the league and if not, whether the tactical sophistication adopted is ripe for Champions League football.
Wayne Rooney has fairly come under some criticism after the lethargic start to the season he has had. Playing as the club's prime goalscorer, it was a bit of a shock-stat seeing that he first touched the ball in the Villa penalty area in the 93rd minute, even so, just to run down the channel and waste time. Already firmly en-route to a scoring drought, the captain wouldn't want to start the season when he should be breaking goal-scoring records with barren statistics.
Admittedly, Wayne has come a long way in terms of games played and the effect of burn-out slowly descending upon him. However, one would imagine taking away the need to run channels and hustle all over the pitch for possession would relive him of the needless running he has been accustomed to. Not so it seems as the England captain still racked up top miles coverage for the game more than any other United player. Chances are, in fear of being left isolated up top by a midfield that is content to pass the ball securely between themselves and the defenders, Wayne can't bring himself to sit it all out often times gets drawn into the midfield bonanza. Whether that is part of the Louis van Gaal philosophy or not remains subject of debate.
I do remember though midway through the second half of the PSG pre-season game when he seemed to be fed up by David Luiz's attention up top. He ran so deep, picked up possession and pinged a 35 yard ball across the field for, well, all time's sake!
You do hope though that he pokes one in tomorrow night, if only to put some of the knives away. Lest we forget, he remains the captain!
Ultimately, there will be no excuse under the sun if Manchester United fail to win on the night. Given that the punishment for failure to progress is the Europa League, there is no respite out of this particular predicament.
Labels: UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE