Manchester United may have gone top of the Premier League, but an opening defeat in the Champions League leaves them under pressure heading into Wednesday’s encounter against Wolfsburg at Old Trafford. Louis van Gaal’s side beat Sunderland 3-0 on Saturday to move into first place in the Premier League for the first time since the retirement of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. A 2-1 reversal at PSV Eindhoven two weeks ago, however, means picking up three points against last season’s Bundesliga runners-up is vital.
Back in the Champions League after a season’s absence, United appeared to be making a solid start in the Netherlands. Returning to his former club, Memphis Depay gave the three-time European Cup winners the lead. But PSV struck back before halftime and went onto net a winner early in the second half on a night in which Untied left-back Luke Shaw also suffered a horrific leg injury.
The mood around the club has lifted considerably since then. The big signing at the end of the transfer window, Anthony Martial, has hit the ground running in a way that few could have expected of a 19-year-old with precious little first-team experience. The former Monaco forward has scored four goals in his first five appearances and has provided a cutting edge and focal point up front that was sorely lacking in the early weeks of the campaign.
Van Gaal’s main concerns on Wednesday are now further back in his team. Alongside Shaw on the sidelines could well be Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia, both of whom have occupied the full-back roles in recent weeks. Another fitness doubt for the visit of Wolfsburg is Ander Herrera, while Michael Carrick has already been ruled out through injury, likely leaving Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin to take the central midfield slots.
Wolfsburg will be without their own influential midfielder, with Brazilian Luiz Gustavo again set to be absent with a knee problem. The German side do, however, come into Wednesday’s contest top of Group B after beating CSKA Moscow 1-0 in what was their first Champions League match since their only previous campaign in the competition six years ago.
Wolfsburg returned to the competition after a fine season last campaign, when they were only bettered in the Bundesliga by giants Bayern Munich. But their hopes of making a real impression in Europe were dealt a blow by key departures this summer. While Ivan Perisic left for Inter Milan, the biggest loss was that of last season’s Bundesliga Player of the Year, Kevin de Bruyne, to Manchester City for £ 55 million.
Still, Wolfsburg, owned by troubled German auto giant Volkswagen, immediately reinvested around half of what they received when signing German starlet Julian Draxler from Schalke. And it was Draxler who got the only goal against CSKA Moscow.
The 22-year-old has been a part of Wolfsburg losing just once in all competitions so far this season, but that solitary defeat was an emphatic 5-1 reversal against Bayern Munich when Robert Lewandowski scored five goals in just nine second-half minutes.
There isn’t much to encourage from Wolfsburg’s last Champions League campaign, either, having lost home and away to Manchester United in 2009.
Prediction: Despite being top of the Premier League, Manchester United are still not wholly convincing and fail to inspire for long spells of games. Yet they have undoubtedly been improved by Martial’s arrival. And, against a Wolfsburg team missing the resilience of Luiz Gustavo in the midfield, Van Gaal’s men seem poised to pick up three points.
Predicted score: Manchester United 2-1 Wolfsburg