Red Devils in Europe: Three to watch

 

Another disappointing season saw United finish in 5th place, with an FA Cup win proving scant consolation for the club once feared above all others across the world. With Louis van Gaal gone, the task of restoring United’s place in the proverbial Parthenon of football now falls firmly on the “Special One” Jose Mourinho.

Mourinho has already made some significant statements of intent since arriving at Old Trafford, acquiring the services of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan well ahead of what is set to be a highly demanding pre-season schedule. However, with the Red Devils once again fighting on two fronts in 2016/17, United’s success relies much on Mourinho rediscovering his ability to man-manage, after a torrid end to his second reign at Chelsea.

With the United dressing room in dire need of unity, Mourinho will treat every match like a cup final, and this will be especially true on European nights, regardless of the pot from which the opposition is drawn. If nothing else, painfully recent memories of defeats to FC Basel and former club Porto, both suffered during his second spell at Stamford Bridge, will provide him with ample food for thought.

With Mourinho at the helm, there is already consensus among bookmakers that United are hot favourites to win the Europa League. Visit Matchbook for the latest Manchester United odds.

As of early July 2016, seven teams are already certain to face the prospect of sharing a group with United when the group stage draw is conducted in Monaco on 25th August.

Of those seven, three teams boast a significantly greater coefficient than the other four. Whether this has any bearing on United’s fortunes remains to be seen, but each of the three highlighted teams boast unique qualities that could ruin Mourinho’s European campaign at the first hurdle.

 

Celta Vigo

Country: ESP | Manager: Eduardo Berizzo | Best UEL Performance: Q/Final (1999)

 

Celta Vigo is a much-overlooked club, having never won a single La Liga league title or Copa del Rey trophy. In recent times though, the profile of Os Celestes has risen dramatically under Berizzo, with the 46-year old Argentine bringing a fresh philosophy from the top flights of his native continent.

Statistically, Berizzo has gone from strength to strength, twice improving on the previous season in both league and cup, proving that the progress made by Celta during his early days at the club were not merely a ‘honeymoon period’.

With some scintillating, fast-paced attacking displays under Berizzo, Celta have recently developed a propensity to win by single goals – enabled in no small part by some resolute defensive performances. This presents United with a potential problem, should Celta draw first blood in their (for now hypothetical) home fixture against United.

Key to victory: Isolating the club’s 2015-16 top scorer, Iago Aspas, will neutralise much of the threat posed by Celta.

 

Feyenoord

Country: NED | Manager: G. van Bronckhorst | Best UEL Performance: Winner (1974, 2002)

 

Feyenoord are too strong to stay subdued for long, boasting a squad which can always retain its place in the upper reaches of the Eredivisie, with consistency rarely an issue under Giovanni van Bronckhorst.

Boasting a highly cultured background, van Bronckhorst has successfully adapted an intriguing, modernised version of “Total Football” which plays well to the strengths of the better players in the typical starting XI. In particular, the 3-5-2 deployed in the 2-1 KNVB Cup represented the perfect vindication of his tactical influence, with Feyenoord dominating the wide areas and disrupting the FC Utrecht game plan, as wingers contributed to multiple phases of play.

Winning the KNVB Cup is just the beginning for van Bronckhorst and his charges. Above all, the unique setup, continually adapted by Feyenoord, has the potential to confuse all but the most astute of defences.

Key to victory: Keeping a tight marker on cup-winning winger and West Brom target Tonny Vilhena will stifle Feyenoord’s flow. A roaming striker with good positional sense will also be a useful asset against a tough defence.

 

  1. FSV Mainz 05

Country: GER | Manager: Martin Schmidt | Best UEL Performance: Playoff Round (2005-6)

A desolate run of just one win in thirteen games over the winter of 2014/15 saw Kasper Hjulmand’s fate sealed, paving the way for Martin Schmidt’s arrival in February 2015.

Even with a spring revival, Mainz could achieve no better than 11th, and subsequently, Schmidt wasted no time in ringing the changes. In 2015-16, he worked towards deploying a side which sought to dominate the wide areas more often.

The end of June 2016 saw Schmidt make his third, and arguably most resounding signing of the summer, with central midfielder José Rodríguez transferring from Galatasaray for a fee of 2.2m Euros. Though Rodríguez yielded no goals from 21 appearances last season, his background with the peerless Real Madrid academy has provided him with a good measure of creative ability and vision.

Key to victory: Having previously received commendation from none other than Mourinho, there is no doubt that Rodríguez will figure prominently in his playbook. Marking him with two midfielders that have a greater European pedigree should ease United’s task, given that his involvement in senior competitions has been less fruitful.

By Tamhas Woods

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