The draw for the UEFA Champions League group-stage has now taken place and Manchester United have been drawn in Group F with Villarreal, Atalanta and Young Boys. It’s been 13 years since United lifted the trophy, and last season’s Champions League campaign ended in heartbreak for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side as United stumbled in their final two group games, albeit against tough opposition.
This year marks a fresh approach to the Champions League with an improved squad and an ever-growing ambition amongst the players. This article will exam the strength of United’s group opposition and potential issues they may encounter, while also looking at some of the more elite competition United could face later, provided they get through to the latter stages. Could this be the season United emerge as a dominant force inEurope’s premier competition once more?
The format for the group is standard procedure and United will play six games in total throughout the group-stage. Each opponent will be played twice, once at home and once away, and United will be hoping to improve on the respectable points total of nine from last season’s outing.
Tuesday 14 September: Young Boys (A, 17:45 BST)
Wednesday 29 September: Villarreal (H, 20:00 BST)
Wednesday 20 October: Atalanta (H, 20:00 BST)
Tuesday 2 November: Atalanta (A, 20:00 GMT)
Tuesday 23 November: Villarreal (A, 17:45 GMT)
Wednesday 8 December: Young Boys (H, 20:00 GMT)
This means United’s first Champions League game will be a trip to Switzerland to face Young Boys, while in the second game United get the chance to extract revenge on Europa League winners Villarreal at Old Trafford. United’s final game in December is another home match, Solskjaer will hope United have already qualified by this point, but the possibility of a boost from the Old Trafford crowd is there if needed.
Manchester United’s Opponents:
The first opponent for United are relative newcomers to the Champions League, although Young Boys have won the Swiss Super League four times in a row, looking to win their 16th title this year. United have faced Young Boys twice, recording two victories against them in the 2018/2019 campaign.
Coincidentally, United’s first game in that campaign was also a trip to Stade de Suisse, a game in which Paul Pogba shone by scoring twice. Young Boys will be keen to produce better performances against United this time out, knowing lots of attention will be focused on Solskjaer’s men and subsequently themselves in the opening game of Group F, and an opening game in front of their fans will give them the perfect opportunity to get a decent result.
United will expect to control both games, looking to use the elite pool of talent at Solskjaer’s disposal to cut through the Young Boys defence. However, the Swiss side do possess some talented forwards amongst their ranks, including Jean-Pierre Nsame, who managed to score 19 goals last season. Overall United will be expected to get all six points from Young Boys, they’re seen as the easiest team in the group, but it’s important that United go into the games with professional focus in order to do this.
United’s first game at Old Trafford in this seasons Champions League will be a rematch against fellow Europa League finalists (and winners) Villarreal. The Spanish club are familiar faces within European competition and perhaps a bit too familiar to United, the clubs have met five times in Europe drawing 0-0 four of those times, the other result of course being Villarreal’s penalty shootout win against United last season in the Europa League final.
This will provide extra motivation for United as they try to right the wrongs of last season, and a packed Old Trafford coupled with the return of a certain Portuguese forward should ensure United have enough to overcome the Europa League Champions in the first game. Villarreal are no pushovers though, ‘The Yellow Submarine’ (as they’re affectionately known) have a strong squad with a top manager in the form of former Arsenal coach Unai Emery, they are bound to make both games tricky.
United will know all about dangerous forward Gerard Moreno from the Europa League Final, while defender Pau Torres has a growing reputation as a top defender, even being linked with United for a considerable time. It’s safe to assume that Villarreal will likely provide the biggest test in Group F, another strong candidate to navigate through the group in one of the two top spots.
Despite never meeting competitively, anticipation will be high from both sets of fans in this clash. Atalanta come into the Champions League coming off the back of three consistently good seasons in Serie A, finishing third in each. The club famously scored eight against Valencia over two legs in the Round of 16 in the 2019/2020 season and are renowned for attacking tenacity and high scoring games.
United will be well informed on the club after scouting Amad Diallo extensively, meaning Solskjaer and his players will know that victories against them is no guarantee. Overall, this could be a tough test, although the pattern of these games against Atalanta is more unpredictable than the other two opponents.
Knockout Phase Teams
This year’s competition is full of quality and experience, and there are at least six teams outside of United that could be seen as strong candidates. Premier League rivals Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool will naturally be considered potential winners considering the depth of quality each team possesses, any potential game against one of them will most definitively be emotionally charged.
Elsewhere in Europe, Paris Saint-Germain are perhaps seen as the overall favourites with the staggering signing of Lionel Messi, but United know they are capable of beating them- that famous night in 2019 springing to mind. Additionally, German champions Bayern Munich will be keen to reclaim the trophy, while Real Madrid and Barcelona will likely be amongst the latter stages. Other teams to keep an eye on will be La Liga winners Atletico Madrid, while Serie A champions Inter Milan still have a quality team despite losing talismanic striker Romelu Lukaku.
In conclusion, this seasons Champions League is full of promise in both potential quality matchups, and the possibility of United progressing far into the competition. The draw has been relatively kind to United on paper, and United will be buoyed by a fantastic transfer window.
The added bonus of fans back for European nights under the lights at Old Trafford all bodes well for some magical matches once more, and the return of United legend Cristiano Ronaldo adds another element to this year’s attempt. The last time United won this competition was 2008 in Russia, a Ronaldo header instrumental as United beat Chelsea on penalties.
Strangely enough, this year’s final will also be held in Russia, Ronaldo will be playing for United, and the squad looks stronger than ever. Could it be written in the stars for United to be the kings of Europe once more…
Written by Sam Wilson