The campaign’s start could not have been more inauspicious. Defeat at PSV Eindhoven on Champions League matchday one proved painful in more ways than one. It was Louis van Gaal’s first return to his homeland since taking over at Manchester United; and the night on which Luke Shaw’s right leg was snapped crudely in two by Hector Moreno’s reckless challenge.
Shaw’s recovery will be slow, albeit there is already positive news on the teenager’s progress. Van Gaal’s side has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts too. Since defeat in Eindhoven the Reds have earned a creditable draw in Moscow, beaten CSKA at Old Trafford, and dispatched Wolfsburg.
Victory over a Phillip Cocu’s side on matchday five will earn the Reds guaranteed progress into the Round of 16. A further point at Wolfsburg on the final day would also ensure top place in Group B – avoiding a meeting with Barcelona or Bayern Munich in the first knockout round.
If there is a strong incentive to take all three points on Wednesday, then Van Gaal’s team also starts the game in better form than a month ago, despite a rash of injuries that have cut the Dutchman’s squad to the bone. The United manager will be without five players for PSV’s visit, although the return of Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial increases the Reds’ attacking options. There is just a little irony that the captain’s inevitable reintegration into the side comes just days after United’s most vibrant attacking display in weeks – at Watford, with Rooney watching from his sick bed.
Still, it is in sound defence that Van Gaal’s team has built its season even if the Dutchman has seemingly rotated all bar David de Gea and Chris Smalling in and out of the side. Troy Deeney’s penalty at Watford was the first United had conceded in more than 600 minutes of football. That solid base has taken the club to within a point of the Premier League summit and a victory of knock-out European football for the first time in two years.
There will be no complaceny on Tuesday night though; not after PSV’s vibrant display that the Phillips Stadion back in September.
“The campaign has not gone as expected. The first match was very disappointing, not only because of the result but also because of the loss of Luke Shaw,” admitted Van Gaal on Monday. “PSV are always a very difficult team to beat. As a manager, I have always had that experience, with more losses than wins. It is not so important that PSV did not play so well in their last match: they have players in the squad to sharpen them up.”
Indeed, PSV remains a real threat – not least with Cocu’s side enjoying a strong run of results during the early autumn, including five wins on the bounce until Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Willem II. Cocu believes that his side can build on victory over United to take something away from a near sell-out Old Trafford.
“Because we won at home, of course it gives the team the confidence of a good result. You have to believe in something to achieve it, said Cocu. “Even if it is a difficult game to play away, in a fantastic stadium, you have to believe in your chances. It gives us confidence that we did it on our home ground.”
Following victory over United, PSV lost in Moscow and at Wolfsburg, before defeating the German side in Eindhoven on matchday four. It leaves the Lempkes in a four-way battle for qualification. One that would swing the Dutch side’s way should Cocu’s outfit pull off an unlikely win at Old Trafford.
Cocu was a player in Van Gaal’s Barcelona teams from 1998 to 2000 and 2002/3, together with the national team in 2000/1. Cocu also played for Barça in the 3-3 group stage draw with United at Old Trafford in September 1998. Van Gaal was the visiting coach and Ryan Giggs scored the opening goal with his head in a memorable game.
Few expect a fixture of equal drama on Tuesday, but with Van Gaal’s side growing in confidence, that inauspicious start is rapidly being forgotten.
Team news and line-ups
Captain Rooney will “not automatically” return to the United side, according his manager, although it would represent a remarkable turnaround in Van Gaal’s selection policy. With Ander Herrera unavailable though injury the Dutchman is likely to deploy Rooney just behind the returning teenager Martial in attack. Two from Memphis Depay, who scored against his old club on matchday one, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard will also form the attack.
Marouane Fellaini, who also missed the Watford match, has recovered from a calf problem, although Phil Jones remains on the sidelines, with Michael Carrick, Antonia Valencia and the unfortunate Shaw also out.
Whatever the result on Wednesday it is a night that will serve as a painful reminder of what United has lost in the former Southampton left-back – and for Shaw of the trauma he suffered.
“I think Luke is recovering very well but you never know with an injury like that,” Van Gaal said. “One bad week can be all it takes to put you months behind schedule. He is dealing with the situation well but now he has become a little bit fed up with the daily routine, so because of that, and also because of the PSV game, I gave him four days off.”
United subs from: Romero, Borthwick-Jackson, Rojo, Blind, Tuanzebe, Pereira, Fellaini, Wilson, Rashford
PSV subs from: Koopmans, Isimat-Mirin, Poulsen, Willems, De Wijs, Pereiro, Schaars, Lestienne, Bergwijn, Boljević
Match officials (CZE unless stated)
Referee: Pavel Královec
Assistant referees: Roman Slyško (SVK), Martin Wilczek
Additional assistant referees: Petr Ardeleanu, Michal Paták
Fourth official: Tomáš Mokrusch
United 2-0 PSV