Following an excellent start to their domestic campaign, Manchester United are jetting off to Switzerland with the aim of translating the good form onto European turf. The Reds will take on Swiss champions Young Boys tonight in the Champions League curtain raiser.
After being drawn in the outright group of death for last season’s Champions League campaign, the luck of the draw was theoretically more on United’s side this time around. On paper, Ole Gunnar Solskjær‘s side is by far the strongest outfit in Group F which also features recent Europa League foes Villarreal and Italy’s Atalanta — former club of Amad.
Despite being taken for a rough ride in the group stages last season, United got off to a flying start — beating Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 away before demolishing RB Leipzig 5-0 at Old Trafford to go two for two. And although in the end the Reds got demoted into the second tier of European football after finishing third, Solskjær will be hoping for a similar start to their journey on the continent.
United will be quite familiar with the territory during the early 5:45 p.m. kick off time on Tuesday as the Reds paid a successful visit to the Wankdorf Stadium shortly before it all fell apart for Jose Mourinho back in 2018. That was also the group stage opener from which United ran away 3-0 victors thanks to an Anthony Martial strike and a Paul Pogba double.Embed from Getty Images
Quite a bit has been said about the astroturf pitch surface that the Swiss champions opt for at their ground, but it didn’t seem to be too much of an issue for United in the past and the quality of Solskjær’s squad should prove enough to dominate once again. “Astroturf is always a little bit of an advantage at home but we should be able to deal with it really well,” Solskjær said in his pre-match press conference.
United are off to an excellent start in the Premier League after accumulating 10 points from the first four fixtures. The Reds sit atop the standings with Chelsea, Liverpool, and Everton also on the same point tally.
After being slowed down by Southampton on Matchweek two, United have won two on the bounce — most recently thrashing Newcastle United 4-1 on the weekend. The lfairytale addition of Cristiano Ronaldo has already proved beneficial for Solskjær as the Portuguese marksman bagged a brace to send Old Trafford into a frenzy, once again leading the Reds to victory. A very familiar sight for the United faithful.Embed from Getty Images
Boosted by the arrivals of not only Ronaldo, but also Raphaël Varane and Jadon Sancho, United will be desperate to remain unbeaten and continue to build early season momentum in all competitions.
The Swiss champions Young Boys are also unbeaten in their last two. Their season has been quite a bit longer than United’s but also a little disjointed. David Wagner‘s side started domestically on July 24 and have five games under their belt, but have only played twice in the league since August 7 — their only loss vs. Sion. Since then, Young Boys have won once, drawn once, and seen another game postponed. Young Boys currently sit fourth in the league with eight points, five behind the leaders FC Zuerich on whom they have a game in hand.
The Swiss side also had to go through the qualifying process for the Champions League. They started at the second round stage and went on to dispatch Hungarian outfit Ferencvaros over two legs in the play-off round to book their place in the top flight of European football.
On a personal level, Wagner faced United twice during the 2018/19 season as manager of Huddersfield — once in the league and once in the FA Cup (lost both). The former was just weeks after Solskjær’s interim appointment at the club. United won 3-1 at Old Trafford.
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Solskjær has a virtually identical squad from the weekend at his disposal in Switzerland. Dean Henderson and Edinson Cavani are still absent for various reasons. The goalkeeper is getting up to speed with minutes in the U23 side after battling Covid. The Uruguayan picked up a muscle strain during a behind closed doors friendly during the international break and will reportedly be out for at least another week.
The other notable absentees are Alex Telles and Marcus Rashford. The left-back is still a couple of weeks away from rejoining the squad, according to Solskjær, while United’s No. 10 is ramping up his recovery and nearing his expected return date some time next month. The trip to Bern has also come just a little too soon for Scott McTominay who should be available for the weekend trip to West Ham.
Otherwise, the squad is at full strength and Solskjær has more than enough depth to sprinkle in a few changes and get a positive result to kick off United’s Champions League campaign. Following a great second debut, Ronaldo will likely be expecting to start again in statistically his favorite competition.
Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and Pogba have been playing a lot of football over the last month and perhaps some rotation could be expected — with Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial putting in solid cameo auditions against Newcastle.
On the hosts side, Wagner also has to deal with a slight injury headache. Fabian Lustenberger and forward Jean-Pierre Nsame are out with long term achilles issues. In addition, Joel Monteiro, Esteban Petignat, and Nico Maier are also unavailable for selection.
Ones to Watch
We could sit here all day discussing the players through which United could really hurt the Swiss side. With the Reds still working things out at the back, Solskjær has an embarrassment of riches to choose from up front. But since United have four days between tonight and their next league game — Ronaldo is expected to start and will undoubtedly be the main danger man.
United’s No. 7 will be feeling good and more relaxed after netting a brace in his return and will certainly be looking to add to his exceptional Champions League goalscoring record in order to get even further ahead and ensure that no-one can ever touch it. Ronaldo’s record is currently 134 goals — 14 more than Lionel Messi who is second in the all-time standings.
Young Boys’ top scorer Meschack Elia is one of two players that United will have to keep a watchful eye on. The tricky forward has three goals and one assist from four league starts so far this season.
One of the big keys to successful away days is dominating the midfield battle, and the hosts Michel Aebischer certainly put the United analytics team on notice with two goals and an assist on Saturday in Young Boys’ 4-0 win over the league leaders FC Zuerich.Embed from Getty Images
With that, the hosts are sure to have a lot of wind in their wings and have already been making confident noises about their approach towards facing United.
Young Boys defender Jordan Lefort spoke to GFFN ahead of the Champions League opener: “We’re not going to sit back, we’re really going to try to attack. You saw in the two legs against Ferencváros that we tried to play well, and it was really pleasing to watch. You can expect Young Boys to bring their style.“
Start as you mean to go on
Solskjær threw down the gauntlet to his side in the pre match press conference, exclaiming that the goal for a club of United’s stature should be to go all the way — especially with the caliber of the summer acquisitions.
It’s a bold statement to make before a ball is even kicked but ultimately, those are the aspirations that Manchester United players have to be comfortable with. The ambition should always to be at the top and Solskjaer’s goal is to help get back there.
The additions of Ronaldo and Varane could prove culture changing. As far as serial winners go, they don’t come any bigger than those two. Ronaldo has five Champions League titles to his name, Varane has four — and he won them all alongside his old-new teammate. Seeing the immense amount of respect that the duo has for United and how they are embracing the opportunity to play for the club can only be contagious for the rest of the squad.
Ronaldo has already said on multiple occasions that he did not come back to put his feet up and rest. For Varane, all he knows is winning. As a result, it is imperative that United get off to a winning start and send a similar statement to the rest of the competition as they did in the league. It is winning time.