Back in the European big time after almost 18 months in the wilderness. It is Manchester United’s reward for a slow and fabulously expensive rebuilding process in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United’s 7-1 aggregate victory over Club Brugge in last month’s qualifying round offers Louis van Gaal a first taste of Champions League football proper as United manager in the competition where the Dutchman made his name more than 20 years ago.
The Reds’ visit to PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday night will test United’s progress since Van Gaal’s appointment 15 months ago, albeit in a group that offers the visitors a relatively favourable draw on the club’s return to the European élite. Trips to Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow await, but on Tuesday the Reds’ enjoy a first fixture against PSV in 15 years, together with Van Gaal’s return to Holland for the first time as United manager.
It promises to be an intriguing fixture, not only for Van Gaal’s return to his homeland, but for Memphis Depay’s rapid appearance at Philips Stadion, just months after a £25 million transfer to England. The youngster has promised to celebrate should he score against his old club on Tuesday.
It is 523 days since David Moyes’ side lost to Bayern Munich in the 2013-14 quarter-final – with few nights to match to drama of the continent’s premier competition in the meantime. Moyes was sacked less than three weeks after United’s exit, with Van Gaal having all but totally dismantled the Scotsman’s squad in the intervening months.
Indeed, Van Gaal has spent more than £250 million on new players over three transfer windows, although the Dutchman has trimmed significant fat from United’s squad too. Still, the investment leaves few excuses should United fail to make an impression on the club’s return to Europe, although Van Gaal is reluctant to talk up his side’s chances in this season’s competition.
“We have to show on the pitch if we are able to win matches at the highest level – that is the challenge for us now,” admitted Van Gaal on Monday. “Last year we were fourth in the Premier League and because of that we qualified for the Champions League, but now we have to show we can play at this level. I don’t know if we can, I have to wait and see.”
United’s record on the road is muted this season: victory at Aston Villa, defeat at Swansea City, and an easy win over Brugge in northern Belgium. It offers little comfort against a PSV side with two wins from two in the Philips Stadion this season.
“For me it’s a difficult ground to go,” van Gaal added. “I didn’t win so much here, not with Barcelona, or with Ajax. However I think I did win with AZ Alkmaar. A draw away is always a good result in my opinion – but I want to win. The first match is always very important and the same is also true for PSV. I’ll be playing with my best team.”
It is a team once again without the squad’s sole senior striker, Wayne Rooney, with youngsters Antony Martial and James Wilson the only alternatives to giant midfielder Marouane Fellaini in attack. The Belgian struggled to make an impression as United beat Liverpool 3-1 at Old Trafford over the weekend; Fellaini’s lack of pace and crude first touch exposing the flaws in United’s summer transfer strategy.
Indeed, victory over old rivals Liverpool came from the home side’s only three strikes on target: a set piece, a penalty and Martial’s piece of individual brilliance. Saturday’s victory mirrored much of this season’s pattern – dominance on the ball, but a lack of cutting thrust up front. Albeit this is a pattern that has also established United’s improved defensive nous, with Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian excellent as a unit. David de Gea’s reintroduction to the side against Liverpool has only strengthened United’s defensive clout.
Still, is in attack where new impetus is required. If Martial made an immediate impression following a £36 million transfer from Monaco on deadline day, then another of United’s summer acquisitions, Memphis, has been slow to adapt to life at Old Trafford. Memphis scored 22 league goals for PSV last season, but is yet to register in domestic competition for his new club and was substituted at half-time against Liverpool. It is the inevitable process of adaptation for a young player thrust into a new country, says PSV manager Phillip Cocu.
“I am not surprised he has ups and downs, but he is also a player who puts a lot of risk in his actions,” said Cocu, who played under Van Gaal for both the Netherlands national team and Barcelona.
“It’s normal you need some time to grow, you need a lot of games. He’s a quick learner also and I’m sure when he gets some time he’ll get it very fast. He will bring goals. He also has good vision for other players. He will always be a player who will have two players on him, but the rest of the team will have benefits from that. I’m convinced he’ll get better and better.”
Cocu was appointed PSV manager on a four-year contract in April 2013 – just five days after Sir Alex announced his retirement at Old Trafford. While the Reds have floundered, Cocu rebuilt PSV during a period when old rivals Ajax dominated. Finishing fourth in May 2014, after losing Kevin Strootman to Roma, Cocu’s team then secured the Eredivisie title last May to end a run of four Ajax titles in succession.
The 44-year-old holds much respect for his former manager Van Gaal, although the pair have not remained close during Cocu’s formative years as a coach.
“We were together with the national team and then Barcelona,” said Cocu. “He made me a better player because of his tactical skills and the way he worked with the team, but afterwards when I stopped playing, as a coach we met sometimes but we didn’t speak a lot about how we work.”
PSV remains unbeaten in the league this season, securing a 6-0 away victory at Cambuur over the weekend, following an impressive 3-1 win against title rivals Feyenoord before the international break. It is the kind of goalscoring impact that Van Gaal’s side has too often lacked. The Dutchman can hardly afford another anaemic display on his return to Holland.
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal must choose whether to stick with the ineffective Fellaini as Rooney’s replacement in attack, or trust in the goalscoring youthful vigour of Martial or James Wilson. The Frenchman’s run and composed finish against Liverpool offered just a hint of the talent that pushed United to pay a potential world record sum for a teenager. Meanwhile, Wilson is also in the match-day squad, despite reports that the youngster is to join Derby County on loan this season.
Elsewhere Memphis is under pressure from Young, with the Englishman enjoying an effective 45 minutes on Saturday. Andreas Pereira has been drafted into the travelling party.
In midfield Van Gaal will choose two of Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Scheweinsteiger, with Ander Herrera likely to retain his place as United’s principle creator.
The home side could welcome back defender Jetro Willems, who is yet to play this season after suffering a knee injury over the summer, but Florian Jozefzoon is out with a similar problem.
PSV subs from: Pasveer, Willems, Ismat-Marin, Poulsen, Willems, Pereiro, Schaars, Maher, Vloet, Boljevic, Locadia
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Rojo, Carrick, Pereira, Valencia, Young, Wilson
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA)
Assistant referees: Elenito Di Liberatore, Mauro Tonolini
Additional assistant referees: Antonio Damato, Davide Massa
PSV 0-1 United
£1 bet club
Martial to score in United victory @ 100/30
Match graphic by @cole007