When the draw for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League concluded, many thought Manchester United had a fairly easy draw. The Red Devils should not be listening to those people, or they could be in for a surprise in their opening fixture. German upstarts Bayer Leverkusen will make the trip to Old Trafford in hopes of getting a result, and to send a message in Group A.
Perhaps no club is going through a bigger change of culture than Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson is not filling out the team sheet for the first time since 1986, which has to be jarring for the players and supporters alike. David Moyes comes over from Everton to replace a legend, and while Moyes does have an excellent pedigree, he has no experience managing in Europe’s top club competition. How he handles the pressure of European football could determine United’s fate in the competition.
Leverkusen have started very well in the Bundesliga, winning four of their first five matches, which has them third in the table, three points adrift of current leaders Borussia Dortmund. Manager Sami Hyypia knows Old Trafford, having played there as an enemy when he was with United’s bitter rivals Liverpool. Hyypia also has Champions League experience, winning the title with the Reds back in 2005. The Finnish manager is hoping to translate some of his winning European experience to his squad.
United will either use a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 formation, depending on what type of tactics Moyes will prefer to use. One thing is for certain is that Robin Van Persie will be in the starting XI for United. The Dutch International leads the Red Devils with 5 goals in all competitions, and was leading scorer in the English Premier League last season with 26 goals. RVP’s left foot is deadly, especially on set pieces where he is known to find the back of the net. Wayne Rooney has been the subject of many rumours in Manchester, on whether his long-term future will be at United. There was considerable talk during the transfer window that Rooney was headed to Chelsea, but those talks have been quelled for the moment. Rooney did start over the weekend, but his nagging health issues could see him on the bench for the opening European fixture. Mexican International Javier Hernandez could make the team sheet, even though he has struggle to find his game since Moyes arrival. Danny Welbeck is another possibility for United, up front.
The midfield has seen different variations early in the campaign, with the one constant being Michael Carrick. The holding midfielder is the rock at the centre of the pitch, and has shown to be very durable for United. Columbian International Antonio Valencia has shown flashes of brilliance, but his erratic and wayward at times. The ageless Ryan Giggs could make the sheet, if Moyes wants experience on the pitch. Ashley Young is a possibility, but he has been warned by Moyes about his diving and inconsistent play. Tom Cleverley is a solid holding midfielder, who should make the team sheet.
The back four remains a constant for United. Patrice Evra remains one of the premier left backs in the world. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are fortresses at centre back. Phil Jones is one of the most underrated defenders in the world, and can be used either as a right back or as a central defender.
David De Gea is an improving keeper, that has gained the trust of his teammates. The Spaniard still has moments of doubt between the sticks, but those moments are becoming less frequent.
Leverkusen prefers a 4-4-2 format with midfielders joining the attack from the trail position. Stefan Klessling is a dangerous striker who can score goals from just about anywhere in the opposition side. His 6-3 frame makes him formidable in the air, which has helped him score four goals so far in the Bundesliga. Son Heung-Min is the creative element up front. The South Korean International is known more for his slick passing, than his finishing touch but that makes his partnership with Klessling ideal.
The midfield is focused around Sidney Sam. The Nigerian born attacking midfielder can move up to forward, which makes him a threat whenever he’s around the ball. Sam has four goals for Das Werkself so far this season. Stefan Reinartz is a sturdy holding midfielder who is difficult to penetrate against. Lars Bender is a crafty midfielder that possess incredible stamina. Gonzalo Catro is a defensive midfielder who can sneak up on the attack on occasion.
The back four has improved steadily over time. Polish International Sebastian Boenisch is the most dependable defender on Leverkusen. Italian Giulio Donati will anchor the right back position. Turkish International Omer Toprak should make the team sheet as one of the centre backs. Either Roberto Hilbert or Phillip Wollscheid will be the other centre back.
Keeper Bernd Leno returns after battling injuries last season. Leno is a rising star between the sticks, and he hopes his continued ascension will mean a call up to the German National side, in time for the 2014 World Cup.
The experience advantage will go to Manchester United but don’t sell Leverkusen short. They know how to handle hostile environments, playing in intimidating venues such as Allianz Arena and Signal Park. That said, United will focus their defence on shutting down Sam and Klessling. Leverkusen don’t have too many options past those two, which makes them vulnerable if they fall behind. United are still going through an adjustment period so expect an unspectacular but efficient United side. Manchester United wins 2-1 to get their European season started on the right foot.
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