Much of the mystery in Group H could disappear by Tuesday evening. The group’s two matchday one winners meet in Romania, with Manchester United favored to sprint out to a six-point start. With the rest of the quartet likely to spend the next three months picking points off each other, a six-point start will see the Red Devils coasting downhill to winning the group.
In Turkey, Galatasary and Braga look for their first results of the tournament. A loser would be left with no points through two rounds and a faded memory of their knockout round hopes.
CFR Cluj (Romania) vs. Manchester United (England)
Constantin Rădulescu Stadium, Cluj-Napoca, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
News that Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney will likely start in Romania gave United fans multiple levels of good news:
- First, set to make his third straight appearance, it’s pretty clear that Rooney’s back to full fitness.
- Second, van Persie and Rooney can resume refining their relationship in attack, a process that re-started with a ferocious second half on Sunday at Old Trafford.
- But third, and likely most important, the selection is another sign that Alex Ferguson is taking Champions League group stage seriously.
During past campaigns, a trip to Cluj would have been a chance to roll out that Joshua King-Federico Macheda pairing nobody’s been pining to see. But one year removed from finishing group stage in Europa League, it looks like Alex Ferguson’s stopped his one man game of chicken. How close can I push this team to the edge of the Champions League cliff and still get us into the knockout round? Last year, Ferguson got his answer.
So with group stage now being a real, to be accounted for-thing for Manchester United, everything’s going to be easy, right? Based on what we saw on matchday one, no, it’s not. United got a 1-0 home win over Galatasaray, controlling a game they should have dominated. Perhaps Michael Carrick’s early goal put them in cruise control too early. Or maybe Nani’s missed penalty kick gave us a final score (1-0) that obscured United’s control. Regardless, United was left with questions from a match that could have been a statement.
Cluj, on the other hand, is dealing with no such ambiguities, getting two first half goals from Rafael Bastos en route to a 2-0 upset at Braga. It was a breakthrough performance for a team that had served as a doormat on their previous trips to group stage. Depending on how strong Galatasaray turns out to be, the three points could prove a catalyst to an knockout round spot.
It’s unlikely Cluj will build on that Tuesday, though as was evidenced against Galatasaray, United is willing to let teams stick around. If Cluj come out and are too reverential, allowing United to dominate possession, they’re likely sitting ducks for an eventual winner. If, however, they come out and try to play with United, taking advantage of the Red Devils’ tendency to let teams come at them, players like Bastos and fellow midfielder Camora might be able to do a poor impression of Basel.
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Galatasaray (Turkey) vs. Sporting Braga (Portugal)
Türk Telekom Arena, Istanbul, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
As we discussed with Spartak Moscow, there’s something to be said for getting your toughest match out of the way while having something to build on. Galatasaray did that two weeks ago at Old Trafford.
And as was mentioned in regards to Lille, opening group stage with a home loss in what was supposed to be your easiest game casts huge doubts on your entire Champions League campaign. That’s where Braga sits after their 2-0 loss to Cluj.
But if you were going to classify the Cluj match as either a wake up call or white flag (to use metaphors from the earlier piece), Braga’s situation appears to be the former. In the wake of the upset, Braga didn’t curl into a crisis. They went back to Portugal and posted back-to-back wins by an aggregate 6-1. Where José Peseiro was having trouble finding a forward to step up in the departure of Lima, Éder now has three goals in two games. That might not be sustainable for a 24-year-old who has never scored more than five times in a Liga campaign, but after the shock of the Cluj loss, Braga should take what they can get.
And what they’ve got is reason for optimism. On Tuesday, they’ll face a Galatasaray team coming off the first loss of their league season (Friday at Orduspor), though two obstacles may offset Gala’s momentary downturn. First, Braga’s going to have to deal with the notorious raucous environment at the Turk Telecom Arena. Second, Gala will start an unforgiving strike duo: Turkish internationals Umut Bulut and Burak Yilmaz, the partnership having already combined for nine league goals.
If Braga doesn’t get a better night from their defense than they saw two weeks ago (particularly, Nuno Coelho), Gala could be in for a comfortable night. But if the Cluj match does turn out to be a wakeup call, Braga is capable of revitalizing their Champions League campaign.
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