There was time when Manchester United were amongst the kings of Europe. Three-time winners of the Champions League, the club’s last win in the competition in 2008 was followed by another two finals in three years. Since Sir Alex Ferguson ended his 26-year reign as manager, the club has featured in Europe’s elite competition just three times.
Make no mistake, Manchester United is one of the worlds elite clubs, and one of the richest. What the club is not at the moment is one of the elite teams on the pitch. So, that headline claiming the club is a dark horse to win this season’s Champions League must be some kind of sick joke, yes?
Well not really. In fact, if you are heading to a sportsbook like Maine sports betting websites to bet on the Champions League this season, Manchester United would be a solid bet. In this article I am going to explain why the club is a dangerous proposition for Europe’s best teams this season.
Bridging the Gap
Over recent years and the failed tenures of David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, and Jose Mourinho, Manchester United lost ground on rivals in the Premier League and beyond. Since Ole Gunnar Solskjær replaced Mourinho in 2018, he has largely been playing catch up. He has been tasked with bridging the gap and for the most part he has succeeded.
Solskjær steered United to third place in the Premier League last season, while also reaching three cup semi-finals. It was a decent showing but still it feels his team remains behind Liverpool and Manchester City domestically and the likes of PSG, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, and Bayern Munich on the continent.
However, this gap exposes one of the great contradictions of this current Manchester United. The team struggles against teams it should beat but usually does well against the big teams. Solskjær has mostly had the better of Pep Guardiola at Man City, broken even against Jurgen Kopp at Liverpool, and bested the likes of Chelsea too.
In Europe, Solskjær has also beaten PSG twice in their own stadium. The latest came in the 2020/2021 Champions League group stages where United were simply the better team. In fact, United are often the better team when they come up against major clubs. For some reason, the players have a mental block against teams they should beat but come alive in the counter-attacking system used against more dangerous opponents.
Carrying the Record
After a shaky start to the 2020/2021 season, United are quickly up and running and look a threat. Let’s be clear, the club has an exceptionally good squad that is rich in talent in all areas (Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandez, Harry Maguire, David De Gea). Solskjær’s challenge has always been to help this talented group gel.
Sometimes it has been one step forward and two steps back, but there is a feeling United are slowly clicking. Yes, there are still problems along the way, as highlighted by Tottenham Hotspurs demolishing United 6-1 at Old Trafford.
Those kinds of blips are hard to ignore and will probably mean Manchester United will not be near winning the Premier League this season. A fight for top four seems on the cards. However, a cup competition like the Champions League suits this team.
In the Champions League, Solskjær will be able to employ the counter-attacking style he prefers. With players who can carry this system, United will be a formidable challenge for the best clubs in Europe. Bayern Munich could pass United off the park, but how will the teams’ high line cope with United’s rapid attack?
PSG has already fallen foul of United’s defensive organization and transitions to attackers willing to run at and behind defenders. How would an aging Juventus cope with the speed of United? What about Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two Spanish giants that are clearly going through transitional seasons… neither is what they were.
And then there are Manchester City and Liverpool. These are the two teams United will fear the most. Even then, Solskjær has shown the way to defeat Guardiola, winning three out of four meetings during the 2019/2020 campaign. The divisive Norwegian coach has yet to best Klopp and Liverpool will probably be the team United want to avoid.
It may seem fanciful, but would it really be a shock to see United go deep in the Champions League this season?