Manchester United battled for nine months last season to fulfill their objective of a return to the Premier League’s top four, but the prize of a place in the lucrative and prestigious Champions League group phase remains to be secured. On Tuesday, the three-time European Cup winners will take on Club Brugge at Old Trafford in the first leg of a playoff to decide which team will make it into the tournament proper.
On paper it is something of a dream draw for United, given that they could have faced Serie A side Lazio or last season’s Champions League quarterfinalists Monaco. But the huge cost of failure means there is unlikely to be any hint of complacency from the Premier League giants.
Still, United have ample reason for confidence heading into the playoff. It required a late run of strong form last season to allow United to claim fourth place in the Premier League, but Louis van Gaal’s men have started the campaign far more positively this time around. The team has taken six points from two matches, thanks to a pair of 1-0 wins over Tottenham and Aston Villa.
While there was a degree of fortune about both victories, there has already been plenty of indications that the club’s substantial summer recruitment will pay dividends. A defense that perennially appeared on the verge of calamity last season has thus far look far more secure, aided by the protection in midfield of Morgan Schneiderlin and the arrival of Italy right-back Matteo Darmian. The improvement evident in Chris Smalling should also soften the blow for Van Gaal of missing out on a deal for Real Madrid center-back Sergio Ramos.
The security of that base will be crucial on Tuesday, when United will be desperate to avoid the concession of an away goal that could make for a tricky trip to Belgium for the second leg next Wednesday. The return match could be made further comfortable if United can pose more threat going forward than they’ve so far produced this season. United captain Wayne Rooney has been moved back to his favored central striker role, yet has come under particular scrutiny for a slow start to the campaign. Van Gaal, though, insists that the 29-year-old retains his full backing.
“All the media has written for one year that I have to put him in the striker’s position, so it’s amazing that after two games you are doubting your own opinions,” he said in his pre-match press conference, according to Sky Sports. “I cannot understand that. I have always confidence in my players.”
On Tuesday, Rooney and co. will be going up against opponents who should already be battle-hardened this campaign. As well as playing in four league games, last season’s Belgian Pro League runners-up have had to come through an earlier round of Champions League qualifying just to get to this stage. They made it though that tie with Greek side Panathinaikos thanks to a 3-0 home win, but it has been far from a smooth start to the new season for Brugge.
Their league season began with a shock defeat, and after a grueling season last term which saw then lift the Belgian Cup and reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League, they have been beset by fitness concerns. As many as 10 players have been on the sidelines, including two of their key offensive outlets, José Izquierdo and Lior Refaelov, who scored 33 goals between them last season. There is some good news, though, with Spanish midfielder Víctor Vázquez returning to action in a 2-1 win over Kortrijk on Friday. And the team can still count upon the vast experience of 38-year-old former Belgium stalwart midfielder Timmy Simons.
United will be able to call upon their own Belgian midfielder, with Marouane Fellaini eligible while he continues to sever a domestic suspension. But Phil Jones remains sidelined with mild thrombosis, and Van Gaal has said there will be no altering of the stance that has seen the unsettled David de Gea left out for the first two matches.
Prediction: Manchester United have been organized and methodical rather than free-flowing so far this season and that is likely to continue in a match of such importance. With Club Brugge missing so many of their offensive threats, United should be able to earn a third clean sheet in a row. And, against a Brugge side yet to win any of their three matches away from home this season, United should enjoy enough joy on their attacking end to put them in a strong position for the return leg.
Predicted score: Manchester United 2-0 Club Brugge