Champions League is back at Manchester United and Old Trafford can finally look forward to some big and potentially enjoyable nights, thanks to a memorable Europa League campaign last term. Although winning the Premier League for the first time in five years is still very much the primary objective, the Red Devils, and more importantly, Jose Mourinho himself will be under considerable pressure to make their mark in a competition they have won a combined five times in history.
Jose Mourinho, who famously announced his ‘special’ arrival in the competition beating Manchester United at Old Trafford in the semi-final second leg in 2004, has a phenomenal record in the competition as manager. The Portuguese has a 54% win rate in Europe, with four titles in total (including the Europa League) and is one of the few managers to have won the Champions League on two or more occasions with two different clubs—FC Porto and Inter Milan. This has always been an important avenue for Jose to showcase his managerial acumen and having made a strong start to the domestic campaign this season, Mourinho should look to improve Manchester United’s recent showing in Europe’s top-tier competition.
So, the draw for the group stages in 2017/18 has been made and Manchester United from Pot 2 were handed Lisbon-based Benfica in Portugal, Switzerland’s FC Basel and a familiar foe from Russia, CSKA Moscow.
Reaction from the Boss
Mourinho called it a ‘tough draw’ in his pre-Leicester City interview and despite the fact that there are some unique hurdles involved with each side, none is unfamiliar to the Portuguese manager and overall, it is indeed a largely favourable group for Manchester United.
Outlining the Opposition
FC Basel (Swiss Super League)
Manchester United will begin their much-anticipated Champions League campaign at Old Trafford in the first midweek after the international break—sandwiched between a difficult trip to the bet365 stadium and a home game against Wayne Rooney’s Everton.
The Swiss champions are a regular fixture in the Champions League and have particularly fond memories against the Red Devils—having knocked them out in the group stages of 2011/12 on a dramatic final match-day.
A repeat, although unlikely, is still far from impossible—given United’s sketchy form away from home in Europe in recent years. The reverse fixture at Switzerland will be played in the third week of November following the visit of Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle and before entertaining newly promoted Brighton at home.
Predicted number of points: 6 out of 6.
SL Benfica (Primeira Liga)
United and Benfica go a long way together in this competition—as far back as 1968, when a teary-eyed Matt Busby led the Red Devils to their first European Cup win at Wembley against the Portuguese giants; a decade after the side lost as many as eight players (23 in total) to the Munich Air Disaster while attempting to return from a victorious European encounter against Red Star Belgrade.
Sir Bobby Charlton scored twice as Manchester United beat a strong Benfica side spearheaded by Eusebio 4-1 in extra time in the capital, to become the first English club to lift the European Cup (now Champions League). Jose Mourinho, one of the biggest exports of Portuguese football, will surprisingly face the biggest club in Portugal for the first time as opposition manager in a European competition.
More than 3,000 Reds will make a short and joyous trip to one of the great cities of Europe to watch United take on Benfica away from home, which will come after a visit to their biggest rivals Liverpool at Anfield, and before they hop on the bus again to face Yorkshire-based Huddersfield Town in a string of three massively difficult fixtures away from the comforts of Old Trafford.
The reverse fixture is also scheduled in October as United will face the Portuguese giants before taking on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and after the visit of Tottenham Hotspur—making Benfica the key opposition, as the pair of results against them is likely to have the largest impact on the final standings of the group.
The two sides have met 9 times so far with Manchester United winning six times, losing just once.
Predicted number of points: 3 out of 6
This will be the third time Manchester United and CSKA have been in the same UEFA Champions League group, after 2009/10 and 2015/16. United won two of those games during those two seasons, the other two ending all square. CSKA Moscow are the lowest ranked side with a coefficient ranking of 52, but they arguably pose the biggest challenge in terms of match preparation and conditions—being the farthest from Manchester, when compared to the other two.
Logistics is key and so are fixtures in-and-around an arduous trip to Moscow. About 200-300 United fans will make the long trip to Moscow before watching the Red Devils navigate a potentially tricky customer in Southampton and ahead of the visit of Crystal Palace.
The home tie will be played on the final matchday—between two of the biggest fixtures in the Premier League calendar in Arsenal (away) and the Manchester derby at Old Trafford. It will be interesting to see if the Red Devils will have achieved progression to the Round of 16 already, in order to avoid any late collapse.
Predicted number of points: 3 out of 6
Final Prediction: United to progress to the last 16 – with 12 points in the bag.