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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United is made for the UEFA Champions League

The UEFA Champions League is returning next week and after a year-long sabbatical, Manchester United are back in the competition. United qualified through winning the UEFA Europa League, so are not considered challengers for Europe’s top trophy. What people fail to realise is that Jose Mourinho has built a team at United that is made for knockout tournaments, and has recent proof to back it up.

The key attribute that can be taken from Manchester United’s 2016/17 season is they are hard to break down. The team went on a 25 game unbeaten run through the middle of the season, but only won 13 games, and drew 12. In the second half of the season, United only lost two games, and those losses occurred toward the end of the season when Mourinho decided to give up on the league. In recent years, teams such as Juventus and Atletico Madrid have made deep runs in the Champion’s League by relying on defensive solidity and being decisive in attack.

Last season, Juventus did not concede a goal in the knockout rounds of the Champions League until the final. Juventus’ defensive success relied on their ability to keep defensive shape while pressing, and staying narrow to create overloads and get the ball back quickly. United are currently doing something similar with their press this is because the ideologies of Massimiliano Allegri and Mourinho are similar. This season Mourinho has added to Manchester United the second part of what made those Juventus and Atletico Madrid sides so successful, decisiveness in attack.

This season United have looked deadly in attack. Over three games the team has scored 10 goals, and have not relied on big money signing Romelu Lukaku to carry the load like Zlatan Ibrahimovic last season. United have attacked with pace and ferocity, preying on teams when they are most vulnerable and scoring in chunks. Against Swansea City, Manchester United scored three goals in quick succession and two in similar fashion against West Ham United.

This ruthless streak is reminiscent of the Real Madrid sides who tore apart Atletico Madrid and Juventus in the 2014 and 2017 Champions League Finals. In extra time against Atletico, Real Madrid scored three times to kill the tie and in the second half against Juventus, Real scored three times to win the trophy. Being able to keep a game close against Europe’s elite teams is something United are capable of, the ability to kill off those games is not as assured, but the signs are encouraging.

Manchester United won two trophies in knockout tournaments last year, the League Cup and Europa League, and reached the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. Mourinho’s Manchester United have already shown their ability in knockout tournaments. They have kept themselves in tight, cagey games against Anderlecht and Rostov, and have ended ties against Southampton and Celta Vigo with moments of brilliance.

Mourinho’s ability to set up the side to counter specific teams; Ajax in the UEFA Europa League final and Chelsea in the Premier League back in April 2017, coupled with the recent examples of United in knockout competitions should give supporters hope for a magical run in Europe.

Written by David Ndiyo

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