[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t has been more than 18 months since Manchester United’s last fixture in the Champions League, a tame 3-2 defeat at VfL Wolfsburg that condemned Louis van Gaal’s prosaic side to a group stage exit. It marked the conclusion of another mediocre season in Europe’s premier competition, a pattern followed from 2011/12 until last year’s Europa League win. With the new campaign comes another shot at the big time, with last Thursday’s the Champions League draw offering up a group stage that most at Old Trafford will accept.
Amid the usual mixture of tedium and fake fanfare, the draw pitted José Mourinho’s side against Benfica, Basel and CSKA Moscow in a group that the Reds will hope to win. After all, while the Portuguese club is ranked 10th in UEFA’s club coefficient, Basel lies 22nd and CSKA Moscow 52nd. Mourinho’s team will, presumably, take this season’s group stage a touch more seriously than it did at the equivalent stage in last year’s Europa League.
United will participate in Europe’s premier competition due to the success in last season’s Europa final, but the will have to improve on poor Champions League performances in 2014/15 and 2015/16. Indeed, United hasn’t beaten one of Europe’s élite teams since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in the summer of 2013. Supporters hope for better, but Mourinho is apt to add a note of caution.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mourinho’s team will take this season’s group more seriously than it did at the equivalent stage last year. [/blockquote]
“I think it’s a dangerous group,” Mourinho said this week. “If you go to the recent history of United, United lost against Basel, United couldn’t beat Benfica in two matches, I think also against CSKA Moscow the last time was 0-0 and 1-0.”
Mourinho may be managing the pressure, but few truly expect United to win this season’s competition. The club’s return to the top table is sufficient for now, especially with Mourinho having built a prototypical side that is seemingly more suited for the hustle and bustle of the Premier League than the nuances of continental competition. Anything beyond the quarter-final may be viewed as a bonus.
Yet, there is also an expectation that United will make a stronger fist of European competition than for some years. Last season’s Europa League victory is a platform – the promised land still awaits and, come May, the 10th anniversary of the Reds victory over Chelsea in Moscow will pass. It has been some time since United tasted Champions League glory.
The club won its 36th Primeira Liga last May to continue Encarnados recent domination of Portuguese football. Benfica has won each of the last four league titles under Jorge Jesus and then Rui Vitória. Indeed, last season the team swept the domestic honours, securing the Super Cup with a 3-0 triumph over Braga, taking the league title, and securing a record 26th Taça de Portugal, achieving the dobradinha for an 11th time. Benfica remains the most successful club in Portuguese history, having secured 81 major trophies overall. The fixture will, of course, bring back memories of the 1968 final that United won 4-1 in extra time, although more recent games against the Portuguese giants have been less successful. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side drew home and away with the Encarnados in the 2011/12 campaign as United exited at the group stage.
Rui Vitória enjoyed a mediocre playing career, never featuring at a higher level than the Portuguese third division. In 2003, having retired, Vitória took over at Vilafranquense, the club at which he spent much of his playing career. Between 2004 and 2006 he managed Benfica’s youth teams, before helping Fátima to a back-to-back promotion to and then relegation from the second division. In 2010/11, Vitória took Paços de Ferreira into the Primeira Liga, spending a single season at the club before taking over at Vitória de Guimarães. This is where he won his first trophy as a manager – the 2012 Portuguese Cup. In summer 2015, Vitória was appointed head coach at Benfica, where he has built an attacking unit that often uses an old fashioned 4-4-2 system.
Central midfielder Luís Miguel Afonso Fernandes – “Pizzi” – began his career as a winger at Braga, where he spent much of his four seasons at the club away on loan. One of those loans was at Atlético Madrid, where he played 11 times before the Spanish side excised an option to buy the player outright. Pizzi spent another season on loan – at Deportivo – in 2012/13 before being sold to Benfica in 2013. It has been a slow-burn career, but his conversion from winger to central midfielder in 2014 has proven to be the springboard towards success. Last season Pizzi scored 12 goals in 48 games across all competitions, and is now back in the Portuguese Seleção after two years away.
The modern Estádio da Luz opened in 2003 and is a dead ringer for Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, with a near 65,000 capacity bowl providing good views and plenty of options for corporate entertainment. It is a world away from the increasingly ramshackle but huge original Estádio da Luz, which at one time was Europe’s largest football stadium. In 1987 the old stadium hosted 135,000 as Benfica beat Porto 3–1. Traveling Reds will no doubt enjoy the many watering holes in the Portuguese capital before heading to the stadium, which is situated in the northern part of the city.
The club won its 20th Swiss Super League championship last season under manager Urs Fischer. Basel hasn’t always dominated Swiss football, but has now won each of the last eight league titles. The team also secured the Swiss Cup for a domestic double last season. However, there was disappointment in Europe with the team exiting at the Champions League group stage after losing home and away to both Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain. Indeed, with the Board changing over the summer, European ambitions may have played a part in Fischer’s dismissal in June. The new manager, Raphaël Wicky, is charged with not only maintaining Basel’s domestic dominance, but progressing in continental competition. United last faced Basel in the disastrous 2011/12 campaign, drawing 3-3 at Old Trafford and losing in Switzerland.
Raphaël Wicky will be a familiar name to followers of Europe football in the mid-90s to early naughties. The combative midfielder enjoyed spells at Werder Bremen, Atlético Madrid, and Hamburg over a career that also included 75 caps for the national team. He won both the DFB-Pokal and the DFB-Ligapokal while in Germany. Wicky ended his playing career in 2009 after a single season with the now defunct MLS side Chivas FC. As a coach, Wicky began his career with FC Thun’s junior teams in 2009, before fulfilling a similar role over three seasons at Servette. In 2013 Wicky was appointed under-18s coach at Basel, before working his way up the coaching ladder to become head coach this summer – his first managerial post. Wicky has set up his team in a standard 4-2-3-1 system this season.
Goalscoring midfielder Mohamed Elyounoussi is a Norwegian international of Moroccan descent. The 23-year-old began his career at Tippeligaen side Sarpsborg in 2011, where he quickly established himself as a key player. In 2014 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Molde paid around €1 million for the midfielder – a move with rapid dividends – Elyounoussi ended the season as the club’s top goalscorer. He spent two seasons at Molde before Basel brought him to Switzerland in the summer of 2016. Elyounoussi ended his debut campaign with 11 goals in 36 games. He is likely to be Basel’s main creative midfielder when United face the Swiss side on 12 September.
Basel play home games at the 37,500 capacity St. Jakob-Park. Nicknamed “Joggeli” by the locals, St. Jakob-Park hosted games during Euro 2008, while it was also the venue for Liverpool’s 2016 Europa League final defeat. Good times.
CSKA Moscow is no longer the force of old. Having won three out of four Russian Premier League titles between 2013 and 2016, the capital side came second last season, some seven points behind Spartak. Originally formed as the Russian Army club (CSKA – Central Sports Club of Army), CSKA was privatised after the fall of the Soviet Union, albeit with the Ministry of Defense retaining a shareholding in the club. CSKA club has won 13 Soviet or Russian league titles and, in 2005, secured the UEFA Cup, its only European honour. Having recently moved to a new stadium there is hope of progressing in both domestic and European competition. United beat CSKA during the 2015/16 campaign, albeit during a season in which Louis van Gaal’s side exited at the group stage. The Dutchman’s team drew 1-1 in Moscow at the compact Arena Khimki.
Following Leonid Slutsky’s resignation last winter, Viktar Hancharenka was appointed CSKA manager on a two year contract. Hancharenka was born in Belarus and appeared for BATE, Strelichevo Khoiniki and RUOR Minsk during a modest playing career. He was Belarusian Premier League champion in 1999 and 2002, before being forced to retire through injury at the age of 25. As a coach, Hancharenka has spent time with BATE, Kuban Krasnodar, Ural Sverdlovsk Oblast and FC Ufa. With BATE, Hancharenka won five Belarusian Premier League championships in a row between 2008 and 2012.
There have been times when it seemed that Alan Dzagoev would go on to bigger and better things. The midfielder made his debut for CSKA in 2008 as a teenager and now has more than 50 caps for the Russian national team. Dzagoev has also won three domestic titles and four Russian cups with CSKA. He was the top scorer at Euro 2012. Yet, the big money move away from Russian football near materialised as it seemed near certain in the earlier part of the decade. Now 27, Dzagoev retains his status as CSKA’s creative fulcrum, but may not have achieved the success that his prodigious talent as a teenager demanded.
United supporters will be familiar with the larger Luzhniki across town, albeit the venue where Sir Alex Ferguson’s team won the Champions League in 2008 was bulldozed for a new stadium five years later. CSKA Moscow is based at the 30,000 capacity VEB Arena in the Khodynka Field district. The stadium was opened – after years of delay – in late 2016, although with so many new builds now available in Russia it was not selected as part of the 2018 World Cup bid.
Champions League Draw
Group A: Benfica, Manchester United, Basel, CSKA Moscow
Group B: Bayern Munich, Paris St-Germain, Anderlecht, Celtic
Group C: Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Roma, Qarabag
Group D: Juventus, Barcelona, Olympiakos, Sporting
Group E: Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, Liverpool, Maribor
Group F: Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester City, Napoli, Feyenoord
Group G: Monaco, Porto, Besiktas, RB Leipzig
Group H: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham, Apoel
12 September: United v Basel
27 September: CSKA Moscow v United
18 October: Benfica v United
31 October: United v Benfica
22 November: Basel v United
5 December: United v CSKA Moscow