Cleat Geeks

Manchester United Say ‘Hello’ To The UEFA Europa League

At the start of the UEFA Champions League group phase, it was the considered opinion that Manchester United would not have much difficulty qualifying for the later knock-out phase of the competition. In the group stage the first and second teams automatically go through to the Champions League while the third place team, out of a group of four, are entered into the lesser Europa League competition.manchester-united-hd-wallpapers

In early September the main concern for United supporters was if their team would qualify as winners or in second place. There are arguments for and against both positions but it is generally considered that finishing second is the worst option of the two. Finishing second in effect means that when the UEFA Champions League knock-out phase begins in early 2016 the second placed teams are drawn against the winners from one of the other groups.

On the night of Tuesday 15th September 2015 United began their first match of the group stage away at PSV Eindhoven. It was not considered the worst start, away at PSV, or the worst group, to kick off the competition which United have won three times in their history.

All the terace talk seems to centre around who United would finally play in game 6, the final match of the group stage which was away at VfL Wolfsburg. The general consensus was that qualification to the next stage of the competition would most probably be assured by the time that match came around.

It was not considered a viable option for United to have to go to the German club needing one point let alone three. However football is unpredictable and that unpredictably showed itself in the very first game away at PSV, a warning of things to come. United duely took the lead in the game through Memphis Depay but after a shocking injury to Luke Shaw the team ended up losing the match 2-1.MemphisDepay

At the time this seemed a minor irritation which could be redressed in the upcoming five games in the group. It was considered If United won all their home matches that would give them nine points and a near certainty of qualification. Paul Scholes, more critical of Louis Van Gaal than most of United’s ex-players-come television pundits, expressed the fact that United could still win the UEFA Champions League on the night of the defeat at PSV.

However there was still a small voice in the background, distant, far off, but still there, echoing the hope that United would not need to go to Wolfsburg and need a point or three to qualify. Unfortunately for United after an inept goalless draw in their last home match in the competition again against PSV, that was the situation they were faced with.

Given the various permutations in the group if PSV won their last home match against CSKA Moscow, then United would need to win in Wolfsburg to qualify for the next round of the competition. On Tuesday 8th December 2015, roughly eighteen months into his managerial reign at Manchester United, Van Gaal and United faced their biggest challenge so far, the question was, would they be ready for it?

There were some mitigating circumstances before the match including an injury crisis that meant at least five or six first team regulars were missing. However, as it was predicted by many journalists, pundits and supporters, United duly lost the match 3-2. In Holland PSV, as expected, triumphed 2-1 over CSKA to relegate the Old Trafford outfit to third place and therefore into the Europa League.

Louis Van Gaal alone with his thoughts after the Wolfsburg defeat and elimination from the UEFA Champions League.

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Surprisingly, out of necessity, United took the lead twice in a game they needed to win but ended up losing because of defensive blunders. On the BT Sports panel three former United players summed up the evening with these words, Scholes: “United are an average team.” Rio Ferdinand: (United) It’s an embarrassment” with Michael Owen adding (United) “They’re quite a way off”.

Perhaps the strangest comments however were spoken by the manager in the post match press conference in Germany. Van Gaal spoke about United “making progress”, and to back this up, strangely, he mentioned how United had gone one round further in the League Cup this year than they did last year.

It was an odd juxtaposition of words because, as most people recognise, cup games are very unpredictable and are generally not taken as guage of improvement. While it is true that United progressed further this year, Van Gaal failed to mention that United were knocked out in the next round on penalties at home to Middlesbrough. Evidence, if it were needed, that in ‘football speak’ everything is relative, and a spin is always possible whatever the disaster you may be facing.

While it is true Van Gaal has steadied the United ship since taking charge, there are still some deep concerns for supporters regarding United’s style of play and more recently their lack of goals. There are also concerns from the fans about the number of players who have been allowed to leave the club permanently and those who have gone out on loan for the rest of the season. The questioning is getting more vocal, the answers more opaque, as the season unfolds at Old Trafford.

As the Manchester United, board, players and supporters prepare for a somewhat tricky trip to premiership newcomers Bournemouth on Saturday 12th December, thoughts no doubt, will turn to the UEFA Europa League.The first draw for the knock-out phase of the competition takes place on Monday 14th December in Nyon at 12.00 GMT.

The matches in this competition are played on Thursday evenings, meaning that the premiership games which follow are always played the following Sunday. There is a genuine concern that this programme of events will seriously effect how United will approach the Europa League itself, and the effect it will have on the challenge for the premiership title.

adidas-europa-league-2015-2016-ball-3Should United treat the Europa League as an opportunity to blood some of the younger less experienced players and those on the fringe of the first eleven? Should United take the competition seriously and field their strongest team in order to try and win the cup, perhaps leaving themselves more vulnerable in the chase for the premiership? These are questions Van Gaal will need to address sooner rather than later before the competition kicks off on Thursday 18th February 2016.

Whatever the decision or approach to the competition there will still be the gnawing doubt about ‘Van Gaal’s philosophy’ amongst a growing number of supporters and a certain amount of incredulity that the behemoth that is Manchester United could not progress out of a fairly average group in the UEFA Champions League.

In September 2015 the omens looked good for Manchester United to progress in the UEFA Champions League but the reality was very different. Ahead of February 2016 decisions have to be made by Van Gaal about the Europa League and whether United will take this challenge more seriously or see it as a distraction to the main prize of the premiership title.

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