Ten weeks after a night to forget in the Netherlands, Manchester United now have the chance to gain revenge on PSV Eindhoven as well as secure a place in the Champions League knockout phase. When the sides met the first time around, United kicked off their return to the Champions League proper by slumping to a 2-1 defeat in a match that also saw left-back Luke Shaw suffer a horrific injury that will likely keep him out for the rest of the season.
Since then, Louis van Gaal’s side have bounced back with two wins at home and a point on the road to move top of Group B. But that opening loss means there remains little margin for error. Three points separate all four teams in the group, with both PSV and Wolfsburg just a point back. A win and United will be through, but anything less and they will face an anxious trip to Wolfsburg in two weeks’ time.
“You always have to win your home matches and that point in Moscow is very important for us,” Van Gaal said on Monday, reports Manchester United’s official website. “I said after that result that we are on schedule and I still think I am right about that. If we beat PSV, then we will have qualified."
Still, that murky line between success and failure rather epitomizes Manchester United’s season. Sitting second in the Premier League, only a point behind a Leicester City side who are unlikely to be serious threats to the title, and with a chance to claim a place in the last 16 of the Champions League with a game to spare, sounds very healthy. Indeed, since the defeat in Eindhoven, United have lost just once in 13 matches in all competitions inside 90 minutes.
Their defense, which was a major weakness last season, has been tightened impressively. In fact United have the best defensive record in the Premier League and have conceded just a solitary goal in their last six matches.
And yet the mood around Old Trafford is hardly uniformly positive. It wouldn’t take much for Van Gaal to again be the subject of criticism, as he was just a few weeks ago during a run of 404 minutes without scoring a goal.
Saturday provided a perfect example of the fine margins inherent in a team that still often labors when going forward. Having led since the 11th minute at Watford, United conceded an equalizer with three minutes remaining to leave them staring at two valuable dropped points. Only a last minute own goal secure United a precious win. Even then the victory came at a cost, with both Ander Herrera and Phil Jones being forced to go off to add to United’s already substantial fitness concerns. Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia, James Wilson and Shaw all missed Saturday’s win.
Of that lengthy list, only Rooney (illness) and Martial (ankle) look to have a chance of featuring on Wednesday. But if neither make it, it is likely to be up to former PSV star Memphis Depay to lead the line, as he did on Saturday, when scoring just his second goal since netting on his return to his former club in September.
Following the loss of Memphis, the top scorer in the Eredivisie last season, it was a slow start to the new season for the Dutch champions. Off the pace in the league, PSV followed up the win over United with back-to-back Champions League defeats against CSKA Moscow and Wolfsburg. But Phillip Cocu’s team have picked up the pace of late, winning five successive matches in all competitions, scoring 17 goals in the process, before Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Willem II.
Now the challenge for PSV as they seek to earn a place in the Champions League knockout stage for the first time in nine seasons is to get their first points on the road in this season’s competition. Once more on Wednesday they will likely have to do so without Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne. The 23-year-old set up both PSV’s goals against Manchester United in September before scoring both goals against CSKA Moscow. But he hasn’t played since, following the death of his mother, and a worsening of an illness affecting his father, who also passed away last week.
Prediction: Manchester United have been able to just about get the job done at home in the Champions League so far, and it could well be a similar situation on Wednesday. PSV have been free-scoring this season, but they have also conceded plenty of goals, and United should be shrewd enough to exploit those deficiencies.
Predicted score: Manchester United 2-1 PSV Eindhoven