Holland's greatest export to England, Manchester United, travel to Eindhoven today for their Champions League Group B opener tomorrow. You cannot help but wonder whether people in the Netherlands feel that United are their team of choice abroad.
Down the premier league years, there has been a Dutch theme about United from the days of Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie and now, more than ever, a plethora of compatriots plying their trade in Manchester. On the travelling party today, United will have no less than three Dutchmen, including the Philips Sporting Vereninging's reigning Footballer of the Year for the last campaign.
According to UEFA's seeding system, the Dutch Champions are supposed to be the most difficult opponents for United in the group. However, the strength of the German league and seasoned participants in CSKA Moscow suggests otherwise. Indeed, it is the skewed nature of this particular group that makes it the most tricky group of the bunch.
The absence of an outright u
nderdog means that qualification from this group might not be as straight forward as it seems. We know the threat posed by CSKA but Wolfsburg and PSV remain a right bunch of party crushers.
The group stages, much like in a domestic league, require that you ensure to win your home games and steal a couple of results away from home to guarantee qualification. Of the three away venues, Eindohoven ranks as the best bet of an away victory.
Louis van Gaal, and indeed, his entire coaching assembly cannot fail to decipher how to get the best of the hosts tomorrow. It ranks as the fixture in which they ought to be best prepared for because of the depth of knowledge about PSV, and Dutch football by extension, that they already have.
Memphis Depay has struggled to light up the premier league but the Dutch Champions are at a level he starred in last season. He should be able to get much joy from the space and limited attention that he will be afforded.
Louis van Gaal's patient approach and tactical discipline will hold United in great stead in Europe. English sides have been accused of treating European games like the helter-kelter premier league. van Gaal treats the helter-skelter premier league like a European competition. There is an arguable case therefore that the Dutchman may yet fare much better in the competition than we expect. Certainly, Tuesday evening should tell us more about this argument.
Philip Cocu's team are unbeaten in their last five in all competitions with just the two away draws in the league preventing them from joining Ajax Amsterdam at the summit of the Eredivisie. They warmed up for the visit of United with a 6-0 away win over Cambuur albeit heavily aided by a red card conceded by the hosts in the 8th minute to Sander van de Streek.
Dutch teams are not known for trading their attacking principles for any fixture and so United can expect much more than the bluntness offered by Liverpool at the weekend. The 35,000 capacity Philips Stadion will be eager to see their team have a right old go at United.
Ashley Young did a job for Louis van Gaal when he replaced the Dutchman at halftime on Saturday. Whereas it is expected that Memphis will start again ahead of the England winger, Marouane Fellaini up top dictates that the crosses should be coming into the box a lot more with much less emphasis on trying to beat three defenders. Depay proved in the first leg of the qualifier against Club Brugge that he does pack a wicked cross for the big Belgian to nod in. Until he can play with a forward with whom to exchange intricate passes, he serves the manager's choice upfront better by being as direct as possible.
Anthony Martial remains under the protection from failure by Louis van Gaal, but that goal scoring debut should have him brimming with all the confidence in the world. He is no stranger to the Champions league though, having featured heavily in Monaco's run to the last 8 last season. To score again in successive games for United could give the manager a lot to think about in terms of holding back a player that is brimming with all the qualities United have desperately lacked in their attack for quite a while.
The Bottom Line
Manchester United have not been handed the most difficult passage to the knock-out rounds. Indeed, it could have been worse, much worse. There will be no prizes for posting six wins out of six in the Group stages because they are expected to have the beating of every other participant in the group.
Regardless the hurdles and trials along the way, United will ultimately be expected to book one of the two tickets available to the last 16 of the competition.
Labels: ANTHONY MARTIAL, DALEY BLIND, LOUIS VAN GAAL, MEMPHIS DEPAY, UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE