Every August, Manchester United wins the UEFA Champions League group stage draw, but as we found out last fall, that doesn’t guarantee a spot in the knockout round. Blessed with another easy group, the Red Devils’ start the path to redemption on Wednesday.
Manchester United vs. Galatasaray
Old Trafford, Manchester, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
No club has more riding on this year’s group stage than Manchester United. Last year they tried to use their well-established plan of conservative play with half-squads and got burned. Swiss champions FC Basel took four points from the then-English champions, relegating them to Europa League – one of the more shocking outcomes of the Alex Ferguson era.
You can’t help but think Manchester United’s problems would be solved by merely taking group stage more seriously, but just in case they still want to try sleep walking through the competition’s first phase, added depth and an even easier group should make it impossible for the Red Devils to miss the final 16. To the team that finished tied for the most points in England Manchester United’s added Robin van Persie (the league’s leading scorer) and Shinji Kagawa (one of the Bundesliga’s best players). Paul Scholes returns after taking the first half of 2011-12 off, and Nemanja Vidic is back from a knee injury stat cost him most of last season. If there was no reason United missed last year’s knockout round, an early exit this year is almost inconceivable.
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Turkish champions Galatasaray are United’s first test, one which will immediately tell us how seriously the Red Devils are taking group stage. On paper, this should be an easy victory, especially considering Turkish clubs have fared poorly in recent UEFA competitions. If you’re looking for an unknown team that can jump up and surprise the big buys, don’t buy into Gala’s giant-beating past (which includes a 3-3 result in Manchester on the way to eliminating the Red Devils in 1992-93). If Ferguson starts a strong team that plays in top gear, United should have no problems.
Gala has a number of regulars who will be familiar to most European soccer aficionados: Fernando Muslera (formerly of Lazio), Emmanuel Eboué (Arsenal), Cris (Lyon), Hamit Altintop (Real Madrid), Felipe Melo (Juventus), and Johan Elmander (Bolton). Their most dangerous players, however, may be a pair of Turkish international strikers. Burak Yilmaz is coming off a 33-goal season with Trabzonspor, while his former striker partner, Umut Bulut, has five goals in four games since returning (on loan) from Toulouse.
Sporting Braga vs. CFR Cluj
Estádio AXA, Braga, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Braga was the second pot team everybody wanted to draw, their UEFA coefficient built on Europa League success. Of course they ended up in Manchester United’s group (hashtag: tin foil), luck that has paved a road to the Round of 16. Braga may not have created as many European memories as Galatasaray, but they are the better team. Missing out on the knockout rounds would be a disappointment.
The first step to the final 16 is avoiding a repeat of their last Champions League appearance. In 2010-11, Braga opened with a 6-0 home loss to Arsenal. They rebounded with a 3-0 loss to visiting Shakhtar Donestk. Their knockout round hopes were basically over at that point, though they won three of their last four games and would go on to make the Europa League final.
Cluj was also in group stage that season. Having now made the tournament proper three of the last five seasons, the Romanians are becoming used to facing Europe’s elite, even if they’ve performed like an exemplar of Michel Platini’s more inclusive, competitively tolerant Champions League. In their last two group stage appearances, Cluj have two wins, two draws, and eight losses, finishing at the bottom of their group each time.
That’s bad, but it’s still plucky. Earning four points per tournament, Cluj proved strong enough to play spoiler. The same could happen this time around, particularly in a group where the difference between second and third could be how the teams fare against the group’s bottom feeder. If Braga gives Cluj their annual Champions League victory, they’ll have to make up for it against Galatasaray.
One of Braga’s big keys is identifying somebody to score goals. Last year’s leading scorer Lima has moved on to Benfica. The 29-year-old Brazilian tallied a league-leading 20 goals. Nobody else on Braga’s roster put home more than six, and through five matches this season (counting their playoff with Udinese), Braga’s yet to get a goal from a forward.