When, on Wednesday night, Manchester United will get their European campaign underway against Galatasaray they will not only be looking to make the first step on the road to Wembley but also, first and foremost, they will want to show their fans that they have not taken Europe’s biggest competition lightly.
I’ve always loved the Champions League, it has a special atmosphere and aura about it and whoever has been an Old Trafford on one of those European nights (Porto ’97, Juventus ’99, Barca ’08, Arsenal ’09 and Chelsea ’11, to name only a few) knows what I am talking about.
Last season, though, we approached the group stage with an attitude that left a lot to be desired, from poor team selections – United, at times, fielded sides that we would have expected to see in the early rounds of the League Cup, rather than onto Europe’s biggest stage – to a lack of urgency and performances that exposed all of our naivety when playing against European sides, and deservedly paid the price for our arrogance.
I ‘ve chosen the word “our” deliberately. For a side that had reached the final stage of the competition three times in four seasons, bowing out at the group stage was simply unacceptable, particularly because our group contained a decent side – Basel – a team desperately trying to rediscover their European heydays – Benfica – and a club about whom Fergie had candidly admitting knowing nothing about – Otelul Galati, but to see some “fans” that considered “not worth turning up for the group stages” was just as disappointing.
Perhaps missing out on a place in the last 16 for the first time since the 2005-06 season will have changed their snobbish attitude towards the competition, even though I perfectly understand that Basel might not have the same appeal of Barcelona. But would we rather have a “group of death” to begin with or an easier group which, if taken with enough professionalism, should see us sail through?
This season we find ourselves in a very similar position, entering a group containing Galatasaray, Cluj and Braga as the overwhelming favourites but Sir Alex Ferguson has warned that there will be no room for complacency this time around:
“It hurt last year. It hurt everybody. It’s not good to go out at the group stage, particularly when we were in control. Over the previous few years we’d gone through the group stage pretty comfortably, so we were playing a lot of young players but we never got out of the group last time.
“It was a disappointment for us. We’ll definitely take no chances this time. We’ll play our strongest team on Wednesday.”
United open their campaign on Wednesday night against Galatasaray and they’re likely to be our biggest threat as Cluj and Braga shouldn’t cause us too much trouble, even though Portuguese sides can always prove to be tricky affairs on their home turfs and the Romanians registered a shock win in Rome (and a draw against Chelsea) as little as three seasons ago.
Fergie knows full well what the implications of being drawn in an easy group are:
“If we don’t go through, we quite rightly will be criticised and pilloried for it. We went out early last year, but I don’t anticipate it this time.”
While I understand the importance of giving the younger lads a first taste of European football (last season’s debacle could prove invaluable experience for Jones and Smalling), we simply can’t afford to fail again.
Having said that, while Barcelona and Real Madrid still seem on a different level, or at least a quality midfielder too far, we should be right in the mix this season.
Scholes and Kagawa will add calm and composure to our midfield, which we desperately missed in Europe last season, and Van Persie will hopefully continue his wonderful form since he’s joined the club.
Furthermore, all of three have bags of experience in European football (less so Kagawa, perhaps) and our squad is probably stronger than the one that reached the final two seasons ago but, before we talk about walking down Wembley way in May, we need to get the job done in the group.
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