Manchester United return to UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday evening as they travel to Bergamo to face Atalanta. Fresh from their 3-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday evening, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side will be seeking to start a winning run once again as they look to finalise their participation in the European competition this season ahead of the first Manchester derby of the season. United have been in poor form recently but managed to beat both Villarreal and Atalanta in the Champions League. Solskjaer’s side sit firmly at the top of the group, by two points and a win will keep that in place with two matches remaining.
Solskjaer faced a lot of pressure over the last week following the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool at Old Trafford. He emerged from that pressure, picked nine of the 11 players who started against Liverpool, changing the formation and welcoming Raphael Varane back from injury. That led to United scoring three goals against Spurs, making the North London side look amateur and piling the pressure onto Nuno Espírito Santo instead. This seems to be the United way. It seems strange that Solskjaer is the manager under the most pressure when there are some that would kill to have the points he has in the Premier League right now!
Previous meetings with Atalanta and their connections with Manchester United.
United and Atalanta have met once in all competitions – in the UEFA Champions League almost a fortnight ago. The Red Devils were 2-0 down with goals from Mario Pašalić and Merit Demiral in just 30 minutes of the first half. United came out after the break a different side with goals from Marcus Rashford, and equaliser from Harry Maguire, and a winner from none other than Cristiano Ronaldo. United received three bookings in the match with Atalanta receiving four. With Atalanta in third place in the group, they will be seeking a win to stay in the competition this season, possibly avoiding the Europa League.
Amad Diallo is the only player to have played for both Manchester United and Atalanta. The 19-year-old started out as a youth player at Boca Barco before moving to Atalanta in 2015, coming though to the first team in 2019. Amad played five times for Atalanta, scoring one goal before his £37 million transfer to Old Trafford was completed in January 2021, despite being agreed in the summer of 2020. The Ivorian international has represented his country seven times; four times at U23 level and three times at senior level. He was also part of the squad for the Olympics in Tokyo in 2021. Fresh from injury, Amad could play a part against Atalanta.
Here is my predicted starting XI to face Atalanta in the UEFA Champions League at the Stadio di Bergamo on Tuesday evening…
Goalkeeper: David De Gea
Fresh from a clean sheet against Spurs, which saw him not have to do much with the North London club failing to get a shot on target, David De Gea will have his confidence restored after United failed to keep a clean sheet in the last ten matches, last keeping one in the 1-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers earlier this season. United kept 26 clean sheets in all competitions last season, and more recently, it has been something that many thought would be few and far between this season, which so far is the case. United will be galvanised by the victory over Spurs and the fact their Champions League results are not that bad this season.
De Gea has grown in form this season and he will be seen as a player that has kept United in matches this season, that at the time they went on to win and could have lost if it was not for De Gea’s saves. United with him in the team are so much better with his experience and him being trusted to remain as the number one this season, despite Dean Henderson’s emergence last season, is probably the best thing that could have happened for the club. United will be shaken at their recent form, but getting back to winning ways in the Premier League has hopefully ended that poor form. United will be back, it is just a case of when.
Defenders: Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire, Alex Telles
United’s defence needs improvement. Solskjaer has those that he trusts and those that he does not trust. Now Raphael Varane is back from injury, the defence will be better equipped to deal with threats but improvement is still needed with players needing to step up. The defensive midfield situation is also an area that needs improvement which will also shield the defence and help them dominate matches in the midfield area. Against Atalanta, I would expect Aaron Wan-Bissaka to occupy the right-back position, as he is the better option here at this time. Diogo Dalot did not do himself justice in this position against West Ham United in the Carabao Cup.
At left-back, Alex Telles should step in and show what he can do as Luke Shaw has lost his best form and needs to find that again. This break could help him ahead of the Manchester City match, giving him a rest at the same time. In the central defensive positions, Varane and Harry Maguire should keep their partnership, which was good at stages this season. Varane is the better player ad he compliments Maguire, who is not a bad player but has suffered a loss in form after his calf injury earlier this season. United will need to progress this season and on Saturday that long road seems to have started.
Midfield Three: Donny van de Beek, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba
United need to overhaul the midfield this season. Relying on Scott McTominay and Fred all the time is not looking very good with the duo unable to control the midfield. Having Donny van de Beek on the bench all of the time is not helping either. It looks like United are making him fail with Solskjaer not trusting him at all, which is not a good luck considering he allowed the purchase of him to go through. Paul Pogba is available for this match, having to sit out three matches in the Premier League because of his red card against Liverpool, which was a pretty poor display from the player – who looked happy coming off the pitch.
Pogba can bring something for United this season and he will need the good performances to seek a one as he becomes a free agent in the summer, unless United can get rid of him in January, which seems unlikely. Making him play is what is needed and he should be professional about it. Many, including myself, see him as the problem. He might well be. Van de Beek should be playing, as he has a lot to give and could be an answer to the midfield this season. Nemanja Matic could provide the defensive stability in the midfield, giving way for Pogba and Van de Beek to link the defence to the attack and help United achieve a victory.
Attacking Midfield: Bruno Fernandes
Bruno Fernandes has four goals and seven assists to his name this season, matching Pogba’s number of assists that came in the first few matches of the season with nothing since. In the past few weeks, he has seemed to be a player that has been unable to progress with United in a stagnant manner at times, especially with their inability to win a Premier League match since the victory over West Ham United back in September. At least that has changed now with he victory over Spurs. Fernandes played a good game and his assist for the opening goal of the match, which was scored by Cristiano Ronaldo showed his ability well.
Having Fernandes play in behind the strikers is good for United as he will attach the midfield to the attack, with three midfielders helping to cut down the available space in that area, which will close down the space Atalanta will be able to play in. Having this moving forward is what United need to progress, which is what those who seem to be against Solskjaer are suggesting has not happened at all under the Norwegian. It’s like they think United have not achieved anything just because a trophy has not been won. Deadwood has been cleared out, better players have signed and United are working towards winning tings again. It can’t be ignored.
Forwards: Edinson Cavani, Cristiano Ronaldo
Playing with two forwards has been something that United have been able to do this season with a wealth of attacking talent at the club. United have two of the best forwards in world football in the squad this season and playing them is the best outcome at this stage of the season. That happened against Spurs and despite a period of the match which saw United scared to apply themselves, it started to work well with both scoring goals in the 3-0 victory and Cristiano Ronaldo also getting an assist. He complements Edinson Cavani and the Uruguayan compliments him. It is a no brainer for United to use both moving forward.
Ronaldo is a goalscorer, that has been proven by his seven goals in 11 appearances for United since his return to the Theatre of Dreams, scoring in each of the three Champions League matches played so far this season. Cavani has scored his first goal this season, in seven appearances but his performance against Spurs has led to him being an undroppable player as despite him and Ronaldo being similar, his work rate leads to his getting more out for United with Ronaldo a player who will be in the right areas to score and assist the goals. Cavani will get his fair share of goals too, but he will work much harder to get them. It is a good mix for United.
Substitutes: Dean Henderson; Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Diogo Dalot, Luke Shaw; Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Fred, Scott McTominay; Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood
United will have up to five substitutions in the Champions League and Solskjaer should be utilising them to keep his squad fresh, especially with Manchester City on the horizon. It is crucial that the squad rotation continues to happen with United playing so many matches in a short period of time, but with the final international break of the season also on the horizon, some players will get a fortnight’s rest ahead of the busy Festive period, which will soon be upon us. Dean Henderson will keep his place on the bench, as at this time, he is not performing better than De Gea, who is the best goalkeeper in form at this stage of the season.
In defence, there should be some different options available with Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw on the bench and depending on how the match plays out, they could offer something different if needed. In the midfield, Juan mata, Jesse Lingard, Fred and Scott McTominay could offer a different type of game play if it does not go to plan for United, which is not something that is guaranteed at this time. In attack, providing he is fit enough to play a part, Anthony Martial could be back in the squad with Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood also available. If Martial is not available, Anthony Elanga could be called upon instead.
Written by John Walker