Manchester United face Bayer Leverkusen tonight in the Champions League, hoping to bounce back from the disappointment of Sunday’s draw at Cardiff and, more crucially, take a decisive step towards the knockout stage of the competition.
It won’t, however, be an easy task – a rather recurrent theme this season – as while United arrive in Germany still unbeaten and top of Group A, their route to the knockout stage could become extremely trickier were they to fail to pick up a positive result tonight, against a Leverkusen team that has won the last seven games in the Champions League on home turf.
United’s away record, on the other hand, is rather more sober, with the Reds having failed to win their last four away games in the Champions League, equalling the disastrous record set between February 2004 and December 2005, when United lost five and drew three of their eight games on the road in Europe’s elite competition.
Having started their European campaign with a win against Leverkusen and a draw in Donetsk, United made things difficult for themselves by stumbling to a tragically dull 0-0 draw against Real Sociedad on matchday four, meaning they’ll take the pitch tonight with a slim one point lead over Leverkusen and, more worryingly, only three points clear of Shakthar.
Considering the way United have played this season, a defeat against Leverkusen is far from unfathomable, while the Ukrainians are widely expected to secure three points against Real Sociedad, which would turn United vs Shakthar in two weeks time into a qualifying decider, exactly the sort of scenario David Moyes and our cardiovascular systems could do without.
Leverkusen have never beaten United in five previous encounters in the Champions League and have never kept a clean sheet, but the 0-0 draw in the return leg of the 2002 semifinal felt very much like a defeat, given it prevented United from reaching the final in Glasgow.
While United toil away in the Premier League, Sami Hyypia’s men have won four of their last five Bundesliga games and sit comfortably in second place, just four points from league leaders Bayern Munich, but will be without Sidney Sam, after the 25-year-old striker suffered a thigh injury on Saturday.
Sam’s absence is likely to be a huge blow for Leverkusen, given that the Germany international has been their player of the season so far, scoring seven and assisting five goals in the Bundesliga, but Hyypia is likely to opt for a like-for-like replacement rather than disrupt his 4-3-3- formation.
Nemanja Vidic and Robin Van Persie could return for United and while the former will be tasked with handling Stefan Kiessling, who’s already scored twice in four Champions League games, the latter is expected to be deployed up-front with Wayne Rooney in support, while Antonio Valencia and one between Nani and Shinji Kagawa could start on the flank.
As usual, however, United are likely to suffer in the middle of the park, where an already stretched squad because of injuries to Michael Carrick and Phil Jones has its options limited even further by Marouane Fellaini’s suspension – even though, in hindsight, the Belgian’s enforced absence might be a blessing in disguise.
That leaves David Moyes with a midfield duo of Ryan Giggs and Tom Cleverley – given that Anderson surely can’t be deployed at this level -which, quite frankly, aren’t likely to scare Lars Bender and Simon Rolfes.
A win would seal United’s progression to the round of 16 and give Moyes a confidence boost ahead of Sunday’s trip to White Hart Lane, a defeat would see the few remaining ounces of the feel good factor generated by the success Arsenal evaporate once and for all.