While the focus continues to fall on Manchester United’s scoring struggles, manager Louis van Gaal can take comfort from the fact that a continuation of the team’s solid defense is all that is required to secure participation in the Champions League group stage. The Premier League club travel to Belgium leading 3-1 going into Wednesday’s second leg of their playoff against Club Brugge. And with just one goal conceded in four matches so far this season, there is reason for confidence that United’s name will be present when the draw is made for the group stage on Friday.
After a painful season-long absence from Europe’s top table, it would represent the fulfillment of Van Gaal’s first requirement since taking over at Old Trafford last summer. The pressure, though, is unlikely to ease on the veteran Dutch coach.
After beating Tottenham courtesy of an own goal and Aston Villa thanks to a deflected strike, Manchester United could only record a goalless draw with Newcastle United on Saturday. Having apparently been interested in Pedro before he signed for Chelsea, there is growing scrutiny on the squad’s attacking options heading into the final week of the transfer window.
In particular, the attention has focused on the failure to so far sign a striker, amid Wayne Rooney continuing to look sluggish and unthreatening in the lone striker role. The only time United have scored more than once this season was in the first leg against Brugge, but, rather than the result of free-flowing team play, the three goals came from some individual magic by Memphis. After two special first-half strikes to open his account for the club, the Dutch starlet supplied a perfect cross in injury time to give Marouane Fellaini the chance to ensure United travel to Brugge with a degree of comfort.
And the solid organization of Van Gaal’s team presents more reason to believe that there will be no catastrophic upset for the three-time European Cup winners. While the rigidity of Van Gaal’s instructions has seemingly stifled the team offensively, it has corrected the vulnerability often present during his first season in charge.
The improvement of Chris Smalling has been immeasurable, while alongside him Daley Blind has so far done a good job of covering up his lack of physicality and pace. New signings have also helped. Matteo Darmian has been assured at right-back and in front of the back four Morgan Schneiderlin provides a reliable shield.
One of Van Gaal’s few selection dilemmas on Tuesday will be whether to field Bastian Schweinsteiger or Michael Carrick alongside Schneiderlin. After replacing Carrick as a substitute during the first three games of the season, Schweinsteiger started for the first time against Newcastle. And Carrick endured a tough time in the first leg against Brugge last week when he compounded some sloppy passing by inadvertently turning a free-kick from Victor Vázquez into his own net.
It is that early goal that provides some hope for last season’s Belgian Pro League runners-up when they welcome Manchester United to the Jan Breydel Stadium. Yet despite giving a solid account of themselves at Old Trafford, the task facing them is a daunting, especially after what continues to be a tough start to the season.
The team managed by former goalkeeping great Michel Preud’homme have taken just seven points from their first five league games after suffering a 2-0 home defeat to Zulte-Waregem on Saturday. And the squad’s injury problems show no sign of abating. Already missing key attacking talent like Lior Rafaelov and José Izquierdo, Brugge enter the second leg also missing veteran captain Timmy Simons after his injury at Old Trafford. Suspended center-back Brandon Mechele will be yet another absentee.
Meanwhile, Manchester United’s most notable absence continues to be self-imposed, with Van Gaal again electing not to select goalkeeper David de Gea, amid uncertainty over a potential transfer to Real Madrid. Phil Jones is again ruled out with mild thrombosis, while Marcos Rojo hasn’t made the trip as he continues to build fitness.
Prediction: Club Brugge caused Manchester United some early problems last week, but they ultimately lacked a real cutting edge. And, with their continued injury problems, it would take a disastrous showing by United to prevent them going through. Expect United to take few chances and get the job done in uneventful fashion.
Predicted score: Club Brugge 0-1 Manchester United