Louis van Gaal has admitted that there is plenty of pressure on his Manchester United side entering the first leg of their Champions League playoff with Belgium’s Club Brugge at Old Trafford on Tuesday. United reached the group stage of Europe’s most prestigious competition for 18 successive seasons until David Moyes’ failed succession of Sir Alex Ferguson saw the three-time champions miss out last year. From the moment he took charge, Van Gaal’s primary requirement has been to lead the club back to the continent’s top table. But, after a fourth-placed finish last season, one hurdle still remains.
Given that they could have been lining up against last season’s Champions League quarterfinalists Monaco or Serie A side Lazio in the playoffs, a meeting with Club Brugge is on paper a kind draw for the Premier League giants. Van Gaal, though, is understandably refusing to take anything for granted.
“There’s a lot of pressure because our aim and goal is to reach the Champions League, and that is what Arsene Wenger mentioned last year -- these kinds of matches are difficult,” he said at his pre-match press conference. “Because of the draw I think it is much more difficult because we have drawn Brugge and with their coach they can defend very well. They can attack also, so it shall be a difficult match -- that is why the pressure is high.
“All the players, the fans and the board of the club want to participate in the Champions League but first we have to beat Club Brugge. We have to show our quality against a good team. It is not an easy game.”
Manchester United have begun the Premier League season in solid fashion, recording a pair of 1-0 victories. Those have been achieved despite the ongoing saga involving their player of the year for the past two seasons -- David de Gea. The Spanish goalkeeper continues to be strongly linked with a move to Real Madrid and Van Gaal has reiterated that he will not be selected until the matter is resolved either by his sale or the close of the transfer window at the start of September. While United will also once more be missing defender Phil Jones to mild thrombosis on Tuesday, they will have Marouane Fellaini available for the first time this season.
If he is selected, the Belgian midfielder, who is still serving a three-match domestic suspension, will hold few secrets for the coach of United’s opponents. Michel Preud’homme took charge of Fellaini at Standard Liege and together they won the Belgian league title in 2008. In Brugge, Preud’homme has also enjoyed success, lifting the Belgian Cup last season, although they fell away to finish second in the Pro League.
It has been a tough start to this campaign, though, for the 1977 European Cup runners-up. After losing Australian goalkeeper Mathew Ryan to Valencia over the summer, the team has suffered a string of injury problems. Still, Preud’homme hopes that they will revel in the role of underdogs.
“Of course they have a better chance than us, but in England in particular you often see the smaller team beat the bigger team,” he said, according to UEFA’s official website. “You see that in their cup all the time. We have to take our chance, we have to try and play the same and see where it takes us. In England, I'm sure the pressure is on Manchester United because they have to beat Club Brugge. We know what that is like because the Belgian journalists always say we have to win.”
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 1