European Football

GOTP Notepad: United’s path to the last 16

Photo: Guts Gaming (CC BY 2.0)

MANCHESTER UNITED are arguably in the best place they’ve been since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. The instability that has characterised the club since his departure would appear to be over and in Jose Mourinho, they have the ideal “transactional” manager who might not be aligned to the club’s past and traditions, but he’s certainly moved the needle since his arrival.

Let’s be clear, though, Mourinho will not be a long-term appointment and if history is anything to go by, this current season will be the peak of his time with the club. Mourinho is in season two at Old Trafford, which means United will be aiming for the Premier title, something they have not won for four seasons.

Since he was manager of Porto, Mourinho has won the league title at every club he has managed in his second season: Porto 2002-03, Chelsea 2005-06, Inter Milan 2009-10, Real Madrid 2011-12 and Chelsea again in 2014-15.

Mourinho will also be expecting a decent UEFA Champions League run, the competition he benchmarks his efforts against, not the Europa League that United won in 2016-17. The first hurdles are now clear – Benfica, CSKA Moscow and Basel. United should be good enough to come through this group.

But they’re up against teams that know how to win titles – Basel have stood astride Swiss football for years, CSKA Moscow have not finished outside the top two in Russia since 2009 and Benfica have lifted 36 Portuguese league titles.

United have started the season well, with two 4-0 victories, which naturally raises expectations that this could be the year they return to the summit of English football.

Benfica: Have never won at Old Trafford. Provided the opposition when United won their first European honour – 1968, the 50th anniversary of which is approaching. Record this season: 100% after three games, veteran Brazilian forward Jonas in fine form.

CSKA Moscow: United have played four, won two, drawn two against the former army club. Record this season: Have lost two of their seven league games, including clumsy home defeats. Currently fourth in the table.

Basel: Unbeaten in two visits to Old Trafford. Perpetual Swiss champions. Record this season: Started shakily, with a 0-2 defeat at Young Boys, who could be a real threat to Basel’s monopoly this season. New signing Ricky van Wolfswinkel is among the goals in his debut season.

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