The last 16 Champions League exit at the hands of Sevilla was arguably the most disappointing result of last season for United. With the Red Devils finishing runners up in the league and FA Cup, the team surely had the talent required to get the better of their Spanish opposition and push for European glory.
Jose Mourinho will be acutely aware of this, and out to showcase his coaching credentials on the big stage after some early season criticism and controversy. He’s thrived in the past at defying the bookies’ odds and the expectations of pundits to take home the trophy for Porto and Inter and would love nothing more than to add another Champions League to his trophy cabinet.
With the draw now made, and United braced for a group with Juventus, Valencia and Young Boys we take a look at how our opponents are shaping up and what tests must be overcome for United to at least match last season’s showing.
The biggest story of the draw was surely the fact that it will bring the biggest star in world football back to his former home. Anyone who doubted Cristiano Ronaldo’s £100 million move from Real Madrid to Juventus should take note of the huge impact the arrival of CR7 has already had, with six million new social media followers for the Old Lady proof of the global commercial appeal of the Portuguese mega star.
He might be 33, but Ronaldo is no spent force either and arrives in Turin on the back of three consecutive Champions League victories. He’s bound to be a big threat in the two group games between the two teams but is far from the only attacking threat in Juve’s arsenal – and the ability to field Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa in their ranks surely ensures that Massimiliano Allegri’s men are among the favourites to win the whole competition. Leonardo Bonucci’s return from Milan merely reinforces their defensive solidity and ability to tough out results in big games.
The scheduling of the fixture list only adds to the scale of the challenge posed by the Italian champions too. The home game against Juventus fall just after a tough trip to Stamford Bridge in the league, while the away fixture comes a few days before Mourinho’s men make the short trip to take on City.
Manager Marcelino has breathed new life into Valencia – ending a period of instability which included Gary Neville’s ill-fated stint in the hotseat – and they return to the Champions League after a fourth placed finish in La Liga.
But for a winter wobble it could’ve been even better for Los Che too. They didn’t lose a single game until December 3 last season and six of their nine defeats came between then and February 4.
Last season’s success was spearheaded by the goals of Rodrigo, who looks a much more potent force than he did during an unsuccessful loan stint with Bolton back in 2010/11. He’ll be out to show that last year wasn’t a flash in the pan – having netted more goals last season than in his previous three years with the club put together.
Valencia lost Joao Cancelo to Juventus in the summer but spent more than 120 million Euros in bolstering their squad, with permanent additions including Goncalo Guedes, Kevin Gameiro and Geoffrey Kondogbia, while Michy Batshuayi has also checked in from Chelsea on loan.
United begin this season’s Champions League campaign with a trip to Bern to take on Young Boys. The Swiss side overcame Dinamo Zagreb to qualify for the group phase of the Champions League for the first time and will be keen to make an impression and secure their best ever result on Europe’s biggest stage (which a win against United would surely be). They won their first Swiss title in 32 years last term, ending a period of dominance for Basel under the leadership of ex-Luzern boss Gerardo Seoane.
Veteran striker Guillaume Hoarau has a prolific record for the Swiss champions, and bagged a brace in the Zagreb victory, and will be one to watch. Another key player is Serbian winger Miralem Sulejmani, who has a big creative influence on his side and has netted 29 goals in 95 games since joining in 2015. Defender Kevin Mbabu had been tipped for a summer move back to the Premier League – having previously been on the books at Newcastle United – while new signing Mohamed Camara has earned the nickname ‘Pique’ after his defensive idol.
United’s group, therefore, is not to be underestimated. Juventus are one of the best sides in the whole competition and Valencia pose a big threat too. Young Boys might be the weakest team in the group, but they’ll be gunning to get a scalp or two on their debut at this stage. Unlike some of their rivals, however, there’s not too much travel required, which at least reduces some of the fatigue for the squad.
Mourinho’s men should have enough quality to qualify, but the two Juventus clashes look even tougher in the context of the league games around them and so it’s vital that they get off to a good start in Switzerland. If they don’t, rumours linking last year’s Champions League winning manager Zinedine Zidane to Old Trafford will only grow.