Manchester United return to UEFA Champions League action on Wednesday evening as they welcome Villarreal to Old Trafford in the second group stage match of the competition. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are in poor form, losing three times in the last four matches and are so far winless in this competition. Villarreal are not in great form either, winning just once in their last six matches. Their only win before their recent one was against United in the final of the UEFA Europa League back in May. That said, it does not mean United will get back to winning ways through – but that needs to be the case to nip this awful form in the bud as quickly as possible.
United started the season well, beating Leeds United 5-1, drawing 1-1 with Southampton, beating Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0, beating Newcastle United 4-1 but then falling to a 2-1 defeat to Young Boys in the first Champions League group stage match, before beating West Ham United 2-1, then losing 1-0 against them in the Carabao Cup. The 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday saw United fall from grace with three defeats in the last four matches, two of which were at Old Trafford. United play two matches at Old Trafford before the second international break of the season and will need to win both of them to stop the negativity.
Previous meetings with Villarreal and their connections with Manchester United.
United and Villarreal have met a total of five times in the history of both clubs and United have failed to win a single match. There have been four draws and one defeat with the first four matches played in the Champions League group stages with the last match played in the Europa League final. In the Champions League match, there were no goals in four matches with the only goals being scored in the Europa League final with Edinson Cavani scoring in the 55th minute of the match – however, that match went to penalties with United losing 11-10 with David De Gea not making a single save and missing his spot kick.
There is not much history between United and Villarreal as far as players are concerned. Eric Bailly is the only current United player who came to the club from the Spanish club in the summer of 2016 for €30 million. Since the transfer, Bailly has made a total of 107 appearances, scoring one goal and one assist. United were apparently interested in signing Pau Torres during the summer. Guiseppe Rossi was sold to Villarreal in the 2007/08 season and Diego Forlan arrived at the Spanish club in the 2004/05 season. Both players did well in Spain with Rossi scoring 82 goals in 181 appearances and Forlan scoring 58 goals in 121 appearances.
Here is my predicted starting XI to face Villarreal in the UEFA Champions League at Old Trafford on Wednesday evening…
Goalkeeper: David De Gea
David De Gea has established himself as the Manchester United number one so far this season and it has given United a new path to travel on to find glory, whether people believe that or not, it is what seems to be happening. De Gea has been in good form this season, despite United losing three of the last four matches, with him not playing in one of them. United needed De Gea to stand up and be counted as it was the main problem at the club over the past few seasons with the Spanish goalkeeper losing confidence and ability but the threat of Dean Henderson and the arrival of Tom Heaton seems to have done some good.
De Gea will be determined to help push noted back on the road to glory this season, which is where the players at the club want to be and more importantly the manager. United have a talented squad but there are some problems within the squad that need to be resolved – the formation is just one of those. United will need to work hard this season and find the way that works for the club. The attacking players are top notch and the defence has been considerably improved over the past two years so the remaining problems are not as big as they once were at the club. De Gea’s form improving will only help the cause this season.
Defenders: Diogo Dalot, Raphael Varane, Victor Lindelof, Alex Telles
The defence is the problem area for this match with Aaron Wan-Bissaka suspended after his red card against Young Boys and the injury problems that Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw suffered in the 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa at Old Trafford on Saturday. Solskjaer still has the likes of Diogo Dalot, Raphael Varane, Victor Lindelof and Alex Telles, who I believe will be that starting defenders against Villarreal, unless either or both Maguire and Shaw are fit, which seems unlikely. It would be better for the duo to sit out this match, which will go a long way to helping avert a longer spell on the sidelines, if that is what is going to happen.
There is strength in depth in the defence this season as United also have Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Teden Mengi in the squad plus the availability of some of the younger players in the academy, such as Alvaro Fernandez and Charlie Wellens, who have been playing well in the fullback positions for the U23s so far this season. Solskjaer may not have to pull players from the academy for this match based on the players he has in the squad but they are a bit short of fullbacks at this time, so you never know. I am sure that the likes of Jones and Bailly, who have both played in the right-back position will be able to fill in, if needed to. Not idea though.
Midfield: Donny van de Beek, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba
I believe playing with a three-man midfield and two strikers could find some good in this team. United seem to be overcome in midfield as there is just one defensive-minded midfielder and that is Nemanja Matic. I think he will start against Villarreal as it is important that United get the better in this area of the pitch as it will make the game a bit more fluid for the team, which needs to be the case. A three-man midfield could help Paul Pogba find his feet again this season, after getting himself seven assists in the first few Premier League matches. Playing a pivot, which involves two midfielder playing defensive positions stagnates the team.
Donny van de Beek should also start as he has some good attributes to his gameplay and is experienced in the Champions League, which is a benefit. The Dutchman and Pogba could playing the mire advanced areas of the midfield, linking the defence up with the attack and Matic could do what he does best – protecting the defence. When needed, Pogba and/or Van de Beek could help out in keeping the Spanish side at bay and I think they could do a good job. Having the likes of Scott McTominay and Fred on the bench could resign up the squad in the second half, if that is what Solskjaer needs to be doing. This trio should have enough to help United win.
Attacking Midfield: Bruno Fernandes
Bruno Fernandes is one of the driving forces in this United team and he can be the difference between a win, a draw or a defeat. Granted, on Saturday, he had the chance to draw United level from the penalty spot, but as some players do, he missed the target sending the ball into the Stretford End. It happens in football and it seems to some deluded supporters seem to think he did that on purpose just to get Solskjaer sacked. Imagine these people in charge of decisions at big companies and driving on the roads! No wonder the world has a doom and gloom element to it at this moment in time.
Fernandes is a player that can score and assist for United, as he has proven this season with four goals and one assist to his name, and since he signed for the club, he has been involved in 44 goals and 26 assists – 70 goal contributions in 88 appearances for the club which is good going considering United signed him in January 2020. With his compatriots in the team for this match; Dalot and Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernandes could find his feet with the former providing the width in the match and possibly providing crosses to the attacking players and the latter seeking to find the goals – with strike partner Edinson Cavani.
Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani
So far this season, Solskjaer has used formations which only seem to use one striker and with the attacking ability the squad has this season, it is a shame to play those formations. I feel that playing with two strikers will help United find the goal, which is not something they have been able to do in their last two matches in all competitions. United lost their first Champions League match to Young Boys and really need to get three points in the bag this time, or they could face a turbulent time in the competition. Playing both Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo in this match would be wise, based on their experience and ability in front of goal.
There might be a problem with the width in this match, which could, to a point, be provided by Pogba and Van de Beek, who will be playing in a midfield three with Matic, who will be tasked with the defensive midfield duties. The fullbacks, Dalot and Telles could also provide some width with both being kind of attacking, although both need to prove that in this match to get their feet under the table and challenge both Wan-Bissaka and Shaw, who seem to be the first choice options. Ronaldo has four goals since his return to United tis season and Cavani is yet to score, but got himself 17 goals last season. This could work very well for United.
Substitutes: Tom Heaton, Dean Henderson; Eric Bailly, Phil Jones; Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Fred, Scott McTominay; Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho, Anthony Elanga
United will be able to name a 23-man squad for this match with at XI to start the match and 12 substitutes. A total of five substitutes will be able to be used, which gives Solskjaer the chance to change his formation and tactics depending what United needed from the match. Obviously a win is the requirement here, to end the two-match losing streak and get another win on the board at Old Trafford, which will boost the confidence ahead of the Premier League clash with Everton on Saturday afternoon. Both Tom Heaton and Dean Henderson should be on the bench with De Gea starting – Kovar and Heaton were on the bench in the last match.
In defence, Eric Bailly and Phil Jones should give United all they need as both can play in the centre of defence and have played in the right-back position, so offer options should anything happen. There is a chance that Maguire and Shaw could be involved, but that is doubtful at this time. In midfield, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Fred and Scott McTominay could provide something, should it be needed – hopefully with Solskjaer changing the formation. In attack, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga all being available. It gives United a pretty balanced squad for this match with experience, talent and youth.
Written by John Walker