Despite a testing start to the season, Manchester United will make their return to the Champions League proper on Tuesday with a spring in their step. A lack of attacking inspiration and a troubled end to the transfer window had dampened the mood around Old Trafford and begun to put pressure on manager Louis van Gaal. But a 3-1 over fierce rivals Liverpool on Saturday has shifted the mood surrounding the club heading into a trip to the Netherlands to take on PSV Eindhoven in the opening match of the group phase.
For much of the early evening kick off at Old Trafford that appeared an unlikely prospect. As has been the case so often this season, Manchester United had plenty of possession in the opening half, but lacked the thrust to make it count in the final third. The second period, though, offered far more tangible reward. Two set-piece goals set them on their way before, after Liverpool had spectacularly reduced their arrears, United’s big summer signing provided a moment to inspire genuine hope and excitement.
The £36 million, and rising, spent on Anthony Martial, a player with only 29 league starts to his name, raised eyebrows a plenty, and was widely seen as a panic buy to try and bolster a desperately thin attack. Yet the French 19-year-old offered a stirring sign of his potential with a thrilling run and finish to seal victory.
It was a moment reminiscent of that provided by United’s other new young forward to help United back to the Champions League group phase. Memphis Depay scored two fine individual goals to help the three-time European champions to a victory over Belgian side Club Brugge in the playoffs and end their 18-month absence from the world’s premier club competition.
But having got back to the top table, a club of United’s size will want to make a sizable impact, with emerging from a group also containing PSV, Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow the bare minimum expectation.
In another era, Manchester United’s opponents at the Philips Stadion on Tuesday might have had realistic high ambitions of their own. PSV Eindhoven romped to the Dutch Eredivisie title by 17 points last season with a team brimming with exciting up-and-coming talent. Had they been allowed to develop together under young coach Phillip Cocu then perhaps they could have made a real splash among Europe’s best, as the likes of Ajax, Porto and, indeed, PSV, have done in the past.
Instead, the current economic reality meant both their captain and leading talent were sold off to the Premier League this summer. While Georginio Wijnaldum headed to a team that only narrowly escaped relegation last season, Newcastle United, Depay was snapped up by their opponents on Tuesday.
In place of the duo, PSV have looked to reinforce with promising talent from elsewhere, such as Dutch midfielder Davy Propper and Uruguayan attacking midfield talent Gaston Pereiro. Two draws in their first three games showed the challenges of rebuilding, although a 3-1 win over Feyenoord and 6-0 thrashing of Cambuur in the past two games has raised spirits.
Their chances of beginning Group B with a positive result should be helped, too, by Manchester United continuing to miss Wayne Rooney. The man who last week became England’s all-time record goalscorer, has been left in Manchester as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury. It means Van Gaal could again field Marouane Fellaini in the striker role, unless Martial is handed his first start.
United will also be without Phil Jones, while PSV’s left-back Jetro Willems remains sidelined until October.
Prediction: With nine goals in their past two games, PSV are in confident attacking mood, and United will have to be wary of winger Luciano Narsingh and in-form striker Luuk de Jong. And, despite the positivity of the win over Liverpool, United’s attacking struggles have not been magically solved. A draw could well be the outcome in Eindhoven to provide both teams with a solid start to the competition.
PSV Eindhoven 1-1 Manchester United