Some sporting names are synonymous with the Champions League. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Inter, Bayern Munich – but since Sir Alex Ferguson left Old Trafford to enjoy his retirement the famous Manchester United have not had the same influence on the competition. The three time winners have struggled since the legendary coach has left but Jose Mourinho is looking to reassert them as a force in the competition.
After taking over last season it was meant to be the return to old times United fans were used to. It did not end up being that easy. A team that Mourinho recently said stood still under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal as other evolved around them. Man United have come a long way since Mourinho has taken charge. Marquee signing over the summer Romelu Lukaku has started well and Nemanja Matic has settled in well. The use of their first summer signing Victor Lindelof has been sparse as he settles into English football. Mourinho claimed the Europa League in his first season which meant that it was considered a success. Now he has his eyes on Europe’s premier prize.
David Moyes carried his United side into the Champions League in 2013/14. In fact he did well in the initial stages which contrasted his fortunes in the league campaign. Four wins and two draws saw them win the group and go through to the knockout stages. Then the cracks began to appear. A 2-0 defeat away at Olympiacos saw United on the brink of an embarrassing exit. Saved by a Robin Van Persie hat-trick back in Manchester saw Moyes release some of the pressure that he found himself under. Unfortunately for the former Everton manager his success in Europe was not to last.
He took United into the next stage against Bayern Munich. Securing a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford and Patrice Evra scoring a memorable goal just before the hour mark it seemed that Moyes may be making United great again. The lead lasted 2 minutes and they went on to concede two further goals in the next 16 minutes. It saw ‘the Red Devils’ crash out 4-2 on aggregate.
With Moyes gone Louis Van Gaal was not faced with the issue of European football after United’s seventh place finish. The Dutch manager did secure a fourth place finish in his first year in England giving United a chance to qualify for Champions League football in his second year. The Manchester club breezed through 7-1 on aggregate against Club Brugge including a hat-trick for United’s all time top scorer Wayne Rooney.
The impressive start soon faded as Louis Van Gaal could only lead his United side to a third place finish in a group which consisted of; PSV Eindhoven, Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow. Not exactly the types of teams Man United would be fearful of facing in years gone by. United then failed in the Europa League when they struggled away at Midtjylland before hammering them at home. They eventually went out to local rivals Liverpool after losing 3-1 on aggregate.
Now Manchester United are back. Mourinho seems to be breathing a feeling of hope and glory back at the club. A great start to the new season seems them top of the league on goal difference after three wins and one draw. Manchester United will be looking to go deep into the tournament this season with players that have come in like; Paul Pogba, Lukaku and Henrikh Mkhitaryan starting to find their feet and players coming through the youth system such as; Jese Lingard and Marcus Rashford adding excitement to the squad. It feels like they are going to make a real push towards major trophies this season.
United will face Basel in their first game back in the Champions League. They will also have to face Portuguese giants Benfica and CSKA Moscow who were in their group on the ill fated last Champions League campaign. While the games are tricky they should not be the type of games that United and Mourinho should lose sleep over. A club the size of United, the quality of player they have and the depth of the squad should see they cruise through the group.
Are they ready to face the European top boys? On any night they could beat anybody. They pushed last years champions Real Madrid to the brink in the European Super Cup early in the season, losing 2-1. Barcelona have had issues of late but are still formidable and will push for the title, Lionel Messi could single handedly destroy any team on his day. Bayern Munich are always looking to compete in Europe and their spell of dominance in the Bundesliga is unbelievable. Other teams like Juventus and PSG will all be looking to lift the trophy. This is not even taking into consideration the domestic rivals they could face.
The Champions League will feel more like its usual self now that United are back in contention. Mourinho loves the competition and seems to feel comfortable with the level of pressure he is under at Old Trafford. There are clearly teams with more recent experience to face but the squad at the Manchester teams disposal will make sure that nobody can take them lightly. The excitement is evident from the club players and fans.
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