It may have escaped everyone with the ongoing will he-won’t he Pedro saga, but Manchester United return to Champions League action this evening as they host Club Brugge at Old Trafford. It looks like the Red Devils have been handed a plum draw, avoiding the likes of Lazio and Monaco, but they know any slip-ups here could define their season.
The pressure is on and Aaron Cox talks us through the key battles.
Manchester United vs Nerves
Make no mistake, this draw could have been a lot harsher to Louis van Gaal’s men, but the first contest they will have to win is with themselves. It may seem odd to say a squad containing the quality and experience of United’s will be nervous but this game is huge for the club.
A footballing giant can only afford to be away from the top table for a while and one season is more than enough for those of a Red persuasion. Failure to dismiss Brugge, and impress at the same time, will have fans and pundits alike questioning whether the investment this summer has been worth it.
Van Gaal himself has already talked of the weight on his players shoulders ahead of this clash and he will be hoping they do not crumble.
Man United to win 1.35
Sergio Romero v Sebastian Bruzzese/Sinan Bolat
It’s not just Van Gaal who has a ‘keeper crisis. The United boss has forced himself to field Sergio Romero after the whole David De Gea saga and his mistrust of Victor Valdes but that has worked out pretty well for him so far.
The Argentine international has a pair of clean sheets to his name and has looked fairly assured, despite not really being given a thorough examination. The likelihood of that coming here is pretty low but Romero’s concentration levels could be the difference between a tricky second leg and a comfortable one.
Brugge have had their own issues between the sticks this season, with their highly rated Australian stopper Matt Ryan heading to Valencia in the summer. They’ve added Sebastian Bruzzese as a replacement but, much like Romero, he does not quite match up to the man he has come in for. So much so that they have added Porto’s Sinan Bolat on loan to add competition. Whoever gets the nod, they are likely to be in for a busy 90 minutes.
Man United to keep a clean sheet 1.80
Wayne Rooney vs Playing Up Front
The England skipper has looked rusty to say the least in the first two games of the Premier League campaign and is still awaiting his first goal of the season. Despite backing Rooney to find the net soon his manager must be a little concerned about the way his main man has been performing.
The United No.10, playing a number nine, had just one touch in the Aston Villa box on Friday night as he put in a lacklustre performance leading the line. Rooney has been given the backing of his manager to play the loan striker role but so far he has looked as if he should be operating a little deeper.
The last time he played as an out-and-out forward on a regular basis for his club was nearly four years ago and the 29-year-old has looked troubled by the demands of that role so far. Wazza needs to show he’s the man to spearhead the United attack; he needs a goal.
Rooney to score first 4.10
Adnan Januzaj vs Timmy Simons
Club Brugge captain Timmy Simons is something of a legend in Belgium. The defensive midfielder has 93 caps for his country and will be tasked with shackling the newly-confident Adnan Januzaj.
The Belgian veteran is a full 18 years older than his countryman at 38, and the likelihood is that the United upstart will cause the Brugge lynchpin all sorts of problems. This is an area in which Van Gaal will expect his side to dominate, so a lot hinges on Januzaj’s performance.
He impressed at the weekend, grabbing himself a goal at Villa Park and this is a chance to show he is deserving of his place before the apparently imminent arrival of Pedro from Barcelona.
Matteo Darmian v Victor Vazquez
Right-back has been something of a troubled position for the Manchester outfit since the retirement of now super-pundit Gary Neville, but in Matteo Darmian they may finally have a player who can shine in that position. The Italian has been the most impressive of the club’s summer acquisitions so far and whilst being far from thrilling, he has added a consistency that this side has missed over the years.
He will be tested here by a La Masia graduate with a point to prove. Victor Vazquez grew up playing with Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique at Barcelona. The Spanish playmaker made just one appearance for the Blaugrana first team before departing for Belgium.
Vazquez has become something of a hero at Brugge and his form was such that he was the Belgian league player of the year in the last campaign. He will drift anywhere behind the striker but should start out on the left and it will be Darmian who is tasked with shutting him down.