Champions League Preview: Manchester United v Club Brugge
This week sees one of Belgium’s most prestigious clubs square off with England’s most successful outfit, Manchester United, with the prize of Champions League football on offer. Yet despite their illustrious history in their respective countries, this will be the first time they will have met competitively.
Having been absent from the competition proper for a decade, Club Brugge fans will probably feel slightly ambivalent about this tie. On one hand, chances of progression are very low but on the other, the opportunity to face off against one of the world’s leading clubs is one that should be savoured for all associated with things Blauw-Zwart, especially financially (though at the likely cost of missing out on further European exploits). Around 4000 fans will make the trip across the English Channel.
Having lifted the trophy on three separate occassions (1968, 1999 and 2008), as well playing in two other finals (2009 and 2011), United’s best nights in their history have come in this competition and their European record is second to very few. The Red Devils frequently make it to the latter stages of the Champions League and will be keen to make sure last year’s absence from European football was a mere blip.
Club Brugge’s best days in continental competition came throughout the 70s, twice making tournament showpieces, and on each occasion losing to United’s bitterest of rivals Liverpool (1976 UEFA Cup and 1978 European Cup runners up). Their last appearance in the group stage of the Champions League came in 2005-06, finishing third in a group behind heavyweights Juventus and Bayern Munich. They’ve never made it to the knockout stage in the current format of this competition, but did put together a good run in the Europa League last season, making the quarter finals.
How They Got Here
Louis van Gaal just about met minimum expectations in his first season at the club, with a good run in the spring helping fend off challengers for the coveted fourth spot in the Premier League, meaning they are England’s representatives in the playoff round. This is the first time United have had to qualify for the Champions League since 2005, in which they beat Debrecen 6-0.
Club Brugge’s European exploits ultimately cost them in the title race, finishing second to the unfancied Gent in the Jupiler Pro League. A Belgian cup victory over Anderlecht helped soften the blow, but a league title has eluded them since 2004-05. Preud’homme’s side made hard going of the first leg against Panathiniakos, losing 2-1 in the first leg despite a man advantage and after a shaky first half in the second leg, looked a completely different side after the break, bettering the Greeks 3-0 on the night.
Their Season So Far
Optimism for United was high going into the campaign, having added several names early on such as the experienced World Cup winner Bastian Schweinstiger and the midfield enforcer Morgan Schneiderlin. Yet there is a looming cloud over Old Trafford currently, in what happens to David de Gea. He hasn’t been selected but the future of the Spanish stopper, who was arguably responsible for United qualifying for the Champions League last season thanks to his match-winning saves, must be sorted sooner rather than later in order for United to plan going forward.
Their opponents have already dispensed with their star player between the sticks, letting Mathew Ryan join Valencia, having been the best keeper in Belgium for nigh on two years. Club Brugge have stuttered in the early stages of the season. After losing the Super Cup to Gent, they then were beaten by promoted STVV on opening day, looking completely out of sorts. A morale-boosting 3-0 win over Mechelen at home followed, though one goal came via a deflection and the other via the penalty spot, but that work was undone by a goalless draw at playoff contenders Charleroi.
Both sides played on Friday ahead of this one – United running out with another 1-0 win at Villa Park while Club Brugge needed an injury time winner from young, in-form winger Tuur Dierckx against Kortrijk to secure all three points. Neither have really convinced in either match, but will be happy to head into a European clash with a victory.
It didn’t long for Louis Van Gaal to endear himself to the Manchester United fanbase, with his no-nonsense answers to questions in press conferences but it’s still unclear what his ‘philosophy’ is. It seems to be one based on entirely on keeping the ball but as the Dutchman bemoaned on Friday, United need to create more chances. Club Brugge could well be the opposition for United to let loose.
A legendary goalkeeper through the 80s and 90s for Belgium, Michel Preud’homme has now established himself as one of the country’s most respected coaches, having won the league with Standard in 2007/08, the Belgian Cup with KAA Gent in 2010 and the Dutch Cup with FC Twente in 2011. However, aside from winning the Belgian Cup last season with Club Brugge, he has slightly underwhelmed. Preud’homme has brought through several Club Brugge youth prospects and made them established names in Belgium such as Bjorn Engels, Brandon Mechele, Obbi Oulare and Boli Bolingoli (cousin of Romelu Lukaku). Preud’homme is an extremely charismatic figure who is not shy of wearing his heart on his sleeve on the touchline.
How They’ll Line Up
Assuming the strongest side is picked (and it should be given how important Champions League football is to them), United will probably go with something close to the side which played Aston Villa. The question mark remains over who will get the No.10 slot behind Wayne Rooney, who as captain really needs a strong performance. Adnan Januzaj may have scored on Friday, but it could easily be Memphis Depay who fills that role with Ashley Young on the left.
United are extremely comfortable in possession and will once have the lion’s share of the ball here, but the lack of a cutting edge in the final third remains a concern. The shield offered to the defence by Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin looks critical for United this season, especially against tough opposition.
Club Brugge’s side for Tuesday is anyone’s guess. A lengthy injury list hasn’t helped Michel Preud’homme’s options, but he often likes to throw up a surprise anyway. As such, Club Brugge haven’t had a settled XI yet, and it’s fair to say the coach doesn’t know his best side yet with the right balance still lacking. A young defence, including the likes of Mechele and Laurens de Bock at left-back is covered by 38-year old Timmy Simons in midfield. This could well be a last hurrah for the elder statesmen. Preud’homme is likely to opt for Tom De Sutter up front even though he’s agreed a move to Bursaspor but if the more dynamic Abdoulay Diaby starts wide, United will look to capitalise on the ex-Mouscron man’s lack of defensive cover.
Players to Watch
Though he missed a good one-on-one chance against Brad Guzan on Friday night, Memphis began to show why United paid so much money for the Eredivisie’s top scorer. He made encouraging movement but lacking that clinical edge that will develop over time. Club Brugge will need to keep tabs on him throughout the night. It will be interesting to see if Van Gaal allows his full-backs to push forward in this match, as both Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian were both fairly restrained against Villa. If given license to attack in a tandem with the man in front of them, they could get some joy.
Club Brugge’s most vital player is a La Masia graduate, Victor Vazquez, the man who played alongside Lionel Messi many moons ago. As you’d expect from anyone who comes from that youth system, the attacking midfielder is good technically, skilful and capable of a bit of magic at times. New signing Hans Vanaken may still be finding his feet at Club Brugge but he showed last season at Lokeren why he’s been touted by many. Vanaken is physically strong, has great vision and canny movement. Finally, Colombian Jose Izquierdo was one of Club Brugge’s best players last campaign, demonstrating his dribbling ability and powerful shot.