Manchester United’s return to European competition should be a formality. After all, it is a decade since Club Brugge last appeared in Europe’s premier competition and the Belgian side is one of the lower ranked teams in the Champions League play-off. Indeed, Louis van Gaal’s team could have faced a far more challenging route through to the Champions League proper in what should prove a favourable draw.
Football is rarely that simple. As Van Gaal put it on Monday, there is huge “pressure” on United to beat Brugge over two legs. It is, after all, not for another European failure that the club has spent some £260 million on new players over the past two years.
The prize is significant – entry to the Champions League proper for the first time in two years, where United will be placed in Pot 2 and will likely face one of the continent’s top sides. Victory in the competition next May would secure United more than £70 million in prize money and broadcasting rights.
For the moment, beyond financial reward and sponsors’ requirements, the pressure is to build credibility in a competition where United hasn’t progressed further than the quarter-final in five seasons. This is now a club relegated to the backwaters of Europe’s élite, having once made three finals in four years between 2008 and 2011. In the interim United’s relative parsimony during the late-stage Sir Alex Ferguson era eroded the squad’s quality; David Moyes decimated its standing and confidence.
Van Gaal is rebuilding. It is a process that has taken more than a year, with scant tangible reward so far for the huge investment made. Spending has also ratcheted up the level of expectation. If anything, United’s successful, if uninspiring start to the new Premier League campaign, has increased the pressure on Van Gaal’s men to deliver under Old Trafford’s lights on Tuesday night.
“There’s a lot of pressure because our aim is to reach the Champions League and that is what Arsène Wenger mentioned last year,” said van Gaal on Monday.
“These kind of matches are difficult. We’ve drawn Brugge and they can defend very well. They can attack also, so it shall be a difficult match – that is why the pressure is high. The board, the players and the fans want to participate. We have to show our quality against a good team. It is not an easy game.”
For Van Gaal the match also represents a personal return to the top table. The Dutchman hasn’t managed a club in the Champions League since he was sacked by Bayern Munich in 2011. He took the Bavarian club to the final in 2010, only to be beaten by José Mourinho’s Internazionale. It is, says Van Gaal, a competition that he has missed – but one in which he expects his new club to do well.
“Of course you miss that because as a manager you can show yourself at the highest podium against other clubs at a high level,” he said. “You can get more from yourself and the players can get more from themselves when the resistance is higher.
“Every English team can play in the Champions League or the Europa League. I think in England the rhythm is the highest in Europe and a lot of European clubs are not used to that rhythm. I hope that advantage is good enough to beat Club Brugge.”
For United’s players the Champions League still represents the stiffest test and highest profile stage outside of the international game. It is a stage that will only come United’s way if the team qualifies over the next fortnight – a challenge that the short pre-season programme was designed to meet.
“It’s true that getting to the group stage is vital for everyone; since the beginning of pre-season we’ve been getting ready for this moment,” said midfielder Juan Mata. “I’m sure the atmosphere inside Old Trafford is going to be special, as it always is in the Champions League.”
Brugge, meanwhile, start the match as overwhelming underdogs to progress. Blauw-Zwart beat Panithinaikos 4-3 on aggregate to qualify for this tie having finished second in the Jupiter League play-offs last season.
Managed by Belgium’s 1990 and 1994 World Cup goalkeeper, Michel Preud’homme, Brugge boasts just enough quality to ensure the hosts suffer for any complacency. Not least because Preud’homme typically sends his team out in an attacking 4-3-3 formation that commits players forward on the break.
Belgian Player of the Year Victor Vasquez is one of the major threats. The Spaniard is likely to start on the left of a three-man attack and began his career as a product of Barcelona’s La Masia academy during Van Gaal’s spell at the club. He is a player Van Gaal rates, although danger to United’s hopes also comes from winger Jose Izquierdo and Israeli midfielder Lior Refaelov, who scored six times in the Europa League last season.
“Vasquez is very good; he is one of the key players,” said the Dutchman. “He is not only fast but he has good vision. I liked him when I analysed him, but there are other good players.”
Preud’homme, meanwhile, enjoyed a fine club and international career – winning the Yashin Award as the 1994 World Cup’s best ‘keeper. Supporters in England might remember the 56-year-old most as the stopper beaten by David Platt’s last-gasp extra time goal in the quarter-finals.
Appointed Brugge coach in 2013, Preud’homme is one of the few former goalkeepers to coach in the Champions League. He has previously managed in Belgium, with Standard Liège and Gent, Holland with Twente and Al-Shabab in Saudi Arabia.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Johnstone, Evans, McNair, Rojo, Carrick, Herrera, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Young, Hernández, Wilson
Brugge subs from: Bolat, Steelant, Hooyberghs, Castelletto, Cools, Dierckx, Claudemir, Oularé, Brodic
Belgian midfielder-cum-desperate plan B, Marouane Fellaini, could play some part having missed out on United’s opening Premier League matches through suspension. Phil Jones is still out with mild thrombosis – no date has yet been set for the defender’s return – while Marcos Rojo could feature in the matchday squad having trained with the first team all week. David de Gea is again not considered pending a move to Real Madrid.
Van Gaal’s selection issues revolve around the roles offered to Adnan Januzaj, who scored in an otherwise disappointing performance against Aston Villa, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ander Herrera. The latter is unlikely to start, but Schweinsteiger is nearing full fitness and impressed with a late cameo against Villa on Friday night. If Januzaj is not retained Ashley Young could come back into the team on the left side of a 4-4-1-1 formation.
Brugge is in the midst of an injury crisis, with more than half-a-dozen players unavailable.
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (Germany)
Assistants: G Kleve, M Hacker
Fourth Official: F Willenborg
United 3-0 Brugge
£1 bet club
Memphis and Januzaj to score @ 9/2