Monday, 28 September 2015
The highs of Manchester United's domestic form will be quickly caveated by the return of the UEFA Champions League this week for its second installment. On Wednesday, Old Trafford will host its first proper European game since 2014 when German side VfL Woflsburg make the 'short' trip across the channel to Manchester.
United's European campaign could not have possibly gotten off to a worse start than losing to PSV Eindhoven on top of losing one of their key players for virtually the rest of the season. That our guests will kickoff three points better off on t
he night makes it impossible to overstate the importance of Match day 2. The Group stage, in the least, requires that a team wins all its home games and gets a point away in order to qualify.
A seemingly straight forward group has quickly become a series of banana skin fixtures. It is conceivable for instance that at the close of proceedings on Wednesday, all four teams could easily be on three points after two games played. It is, to quote Louis van Gaal, quickly becoming a rat race to qualify in Group B.
United were wasteful infront of goal in Holland, often times making the wrong pass and failing to turn domination into clear cut chances. At the continental level, reading and then countering the opposition's game plan is what has made the Champions League a difficult affair for the often one-paced English sides. Phillip Cocu, for instance, would argue that he cannot see how United dominated the game when his side defended their territory ever so well and picked off United almost at will.
Wolfsburg might have lost star man Kevin De Bruyne to the lot across the street but they've been just as impressive domestically, starting the season unbeaten and sit comfortably in third place after four matches. They held off CSKA Moscow on Match-Day 1 to record a vital 1-0 win and are definitely an improvement in terms of opposition to PSV.
In Bas Dost (5 goals this season), Wolfsburg have the perfect target man to make the most of the attacks the German side shall muster. They did drop points at home to Hanover 96 but that was no doubt with an eye on Wednesday. It is imperative therefore that United quickly wake up from the slumber that was a stroll in the park on Saturday and be braced for a accomplished test of their European credentials.
A fortnight ago, Louis van Gaal seemed to go against his instincts when the team news was released. United were almost set up in the attack minded fashion that you would prefer in the domestic league. It will be interesting to see whether the Dutchman once again throws out conservatism for an all out attack in Europe. Ironically, it is the reverse that you feel would serve United better especially in Europe.
In Holland, United were loose in the middle of the park, immediately exposing the defence whenever PSV attacked. Given the abilities of our current front four, it is not necessary to add a third creative midfielder in Europe. The level of opposition at this level requires more caution than you would ordinarily require domestically. Even so, if van Gaal opts to have Memphis, Mata, Rooney and Martial in the same team, you do not need to complement that with another creative player at the expense of solidity in the middle.
Saturday marked the third straight game in which Louis van Gall has gone with a different pairing of full-backs since the injury to Luke Shaw. This time, Matteo Darmian guarded left whilst Antonio Valencia resumed right-back duties. It's fair to say that we cannot say for certain which combination will suit United against better opposition than Sunderland but the feeling is that he will retain the combination at the weekend, if only because it means he does not change the centre-back pairing of Chris and Daley.
Memphis Depay has found the European stage more comfortable. Another goal is not asking too much, is it?
The Champions League aside, United have had a great September. Put the Champions League in the equation and the Red Devils would need a win on Wednesday to keep it that way.
October is already tough enough for the squad, but failure to win on Wednesday night will add an extra tonne of pressure to the games in October against CSKA Moscow. It's a predicament that United could do without considering the weekend fixtures leading to and after those games.
Quite simply; win, United must.