There is light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel otherwise known as the international break – next week, Manchester United will once again be starting their Champions League campaign, with Sir Alex Ferguson determined to go one step better than last year. But before the Premier League champions can think of tackling European nemesis Barcelona, they must overcome Benfica, FC Basle and Otelul Galati in their six group stage games.
Of the four English sides in the tournament it is fair to say that The Red Devils have been handed the most favourable draw, but nonetheless Fergie and his team will not take their opponents lightly. United’s European form at Old Trafford has been exemplary over the last number of seasons, and the players will look to avoid any stress in the away fixtures by getting nine points at home. The United fans will enjoy travelling to different away venues.
Benfica on paper look like the toughest opposition, with the Portuguese team having a number of attacking players that could hurt United, especially at the Estadio da Luz. Jorge Jesus’ side finished runners up to the unbeaten Porto last season domestically, and also reached the semi-finals of the Europa League before being eliminated by countrymen Braga.
The Eagles have a number of attacking players that the United fans and players will recognise, with South American strikers Javier Saviola and Oscar Cardozo accomplished and experienced at this level. The Portuguese outfit have signed well in the summer by adding Argentina international centre back Ezequiel Garay to their backline, and playmaker Axel Witsel to their midfield; the Belgian international will tuck in beside Pablo Aimar and look to pick passes and create chance for the front pairing.
Swiss champions FC Basle are becoming a perennial competitor in the Champions League, and although they do not have the players of the quality of United, should not be underestimated. Thorsten Fink’s side have actually started their domestic league campaign slowly, losing two fixtures on the bounce, but have a host of international players that demand respect.
The most recognisable opponents for the United fans will be Switzerland frontmen Marco Streller and Alexander Frei, who have 54 international goals between them and will pose a threat to Nemanja Vidic and company. The veteran pairing will be supplied by a star of tomorrow, left winger Xherdan Shaqiri. The 19-year-old scored a wonder-goal against England in the recent Euro 2012 qualifying fixture, and United scouts should be keeping a close eye on the midfielder, as he could make an excellent replacement for Ryan Giggs once the Welshman finally hangs up his boots.
Most United fans will never have heard of the last team in Group C, Otelul Galati. Galati are the Romanian champions, and won their domestic league for the first time last term, hence this is their first outing also in the Champions League. The side are managed by former Romania international Dorinel Munteanu, and have a small home ground that will most likely be uncomfortable for the Premier League champions. Despite this, anything less than six points against the eastern Europeans will be deemed as points dropped.
Sir Alex Ferguson will have his eye on the latter stages of the tournament and have dreamed up a plan to counter Barcelona’s expansive style of attacking play, but first must concentrate on the group stages. United will be favourites to prevail, but must be careful on their trips to Portugal and Switzerland.
Also See: Manchester United 2011/2012 Season Preview.
Gareth McKnight writes for Soccerlens.com.