More than a decade on from Champions League semi-final defeat to Bayer Leverkusen and the memory of a chance lost still lingers. Real Madrid won the tournament, beating the German side in the final through Zinedine Zidane’s outrageous volley. But as close calls go there was much to regret in the manner of Manchester United’s away goals defeat through Oliver Neuville’s late equaliser at Old Trafford.
Sir Alex Ferguson blamed defeat on nerves; that his player froze under the pressure of a first semi-final since triumphing in 1999. It is an emotional response unlikely to be repeated on Tuesday as United meet Bayer in Manchester, although David Moyes’ first European fixture as the Reds’ manager adds intrigue at least.
Among the current United only Ryan Giggs survives that semi-final – a match that also featured future Red Dimitar Berbatov. The Welshman is likely to be involved a some point on Tuesday, if only from the bench, after sitting out United’s weekend fixture with Crystal Palace. Meanwhile, Phil Neville, now United’s first-team coach, was an 18th-minute substitute for his brother Gary in the first leg.
United’s first outing in Europe under Moyes comes after similar crushing disappointment. Defeat to Real Madrid in last season’s Round of 16 hurt, although the Reds were far from the best team in the tournament.
Moyes’ appointment also represents a passing of the European mantle. Europe became Ferguson’s raison d’être – the triumphs and defeats defining much of what the Scot acheived with the club over a quarter century. Indeed, it is United’s 19th UEFA Champions League campaign, one more than Barcelona, Real Madrid and FC Porto, although no manager but Sir Alex has led the Reds into continental competition since Ron Atkinson guided United to the UEFA Cup quarter-finals in 1984-85.
It is a challenge that the new manager relishes, although he has little European experience to call on. Everton’s sole campaign in the Champions League ended in elimination at the preliminary stage.
And it is likely to be a testing campaign, with United drawn to face Real Sociedad and Shaktar Donetsk in addition to Bayer.
“I’ve been excited about it ever since I’ve joined Manchester United,” said Moyes this week.
“Every game has offered a new challenge and a tough one as well. I’ve been there before with Everton – we didn’t quite make the group stages but this is different. This is a club that’s used to getting to the latter stages.
“I think all groups are tough. It is more unpredictable than it was. We’ve got a leading team from Germany, one from Spain and we go to Donetsk to play Shakhtar. It’s a tough group.”
Moyes is set to begin the campaign without some key men. England duo Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones are both doubtful with knee and ankle injuries, while Wayne Rooney will again wear protective head gear after a recent gash to the forehead.
Shinji Kagawa rejoins the squad after a bout of flu, but Nani serves a one-game ban on matchday one following his red card in last season’s second leg against Real Madrid. Youngster Jesse Lingard may come into the party, although the weekend’s star performer, Adnan Januzaj, is not available for selection until October when he qualifies for United’s ‘B’ list.
The game also serves as a first Champions League fixture as a coach for Leverkusen’s Sami Hyypiä, a winner as a player with Liverpool in 2005. It has been a summer of change at the BayArena, with 10 players joining the squad over the transfer window. Sevilla pair Andrés Palop and Emir Spahić join former Bayern Munich youth Emre Can and Fortuna Düsseldorf forward Robbie Kruse in the squad.
However, it is Stefan Kießling that the remains Bayer’s most potent threat. The German striker notched 17 in the Bundesliga last season and a double against Wolfsburg at the weekend.
Midfielder Lars Bender faces a late fitness test on a hip injury, which forced the German international out of Saturday’s fixture and Germany’s World Cup qualifiers last week.
Meanwhile, Rio Ferdinand says that the manner of United’s defeat to Real last season adds no extra motivation ahead of the Champions League’s start. The Reds 2-1 loss at Old Trafford followed Nani’s controversial dismissal – a key refereeing decision that turned the fixture in Real’s favour.
It proved to be a devastating blow for Ferguson, who may attend Tuesday’s match in the director’s box. But as with the Scot’s difficult first few seasons in Europe – 1991 Cup Winners Cup victory aside – the Reds have some ground to make up on Europe’s best.
Real, Barcelona and champions Bayern Munich start as favourites to win the competition next May, although Paris Saint Germain, Juventus, Manchester City, Chelsea and big-spending Monaco each have legitimate designs on the trophy as well.
“We were all disappointed with what happened last season and how we went out. But we won’t harp on about it,” said 34-year-old Ferdinand.
“We continue and start again afresh this season. New group, new season, new games. Last season is out of our minds and not something we need to use as motivation.”
“If you don’t win the competition you’ve got catching up to do. It’s that simple. If that happens then you have work to do to catch up. Last year we went out in dubious circumstances. Hopefully we can improve this season. Last year we improved on the season before that and hopefully we can improve again.”
United has suffered two disappointing campaigns in succession – a slide in fortunes that has coincided with Bayern Munich’s secession to the head of Europe’s elite. The southern German outfit was the competition’s outstanding team over the period, supplanting Barcelona as the continent’s best.
While Leverkusen is unlikely to threaten Europe’s best the opening match of this season’s campaign should test Moyes’ men.
“The Germans did well last year, the Spanish sides before that. It goes in cycles and hopefully we can start the cycle this season,” adds Ferdinand.
“It probably focuses you a bit more when you have a tough group. You don’t get the chance to rest people, for example. The competition is so competitive and the players are so good and the desire to get into the next stage is so high. Each year you want to qualify for the knockout stage.”
That goal is achievable, especially with United’s ability to compete in central midfield now augmented by Marouanne Fellaini’s acquisition. The Belgian is sure to start alongside Michael Carrick in midfield.
However, few argue that this United squad falls short of the champion’s wealth of talent. Still, with a new manager in place the fresh campaign comes with renewed incentives and hope. United may not start the campaign as favourites to capture a trophy last secured more than five years ago, but it is a group from which the Reds should emerge.
“I have always wanted to get to the Champions League,” concludes Moyes. “I did everything I possibly could at Everton to reach it and I couldn’t quite make that happen. Now, at Manchester United I am going to do everything I possibly can to win it.”
Manchester United v Bayer Leverkusen, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm 17 September 2013
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Young; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Buttner, Evans, Anderson, Cleverley, Giggs, Zaha, Kagawa, Lingard, Hernández
Leverkusen (4-3-3): Leno; Donati, Toprak, Spahić, Boenisch; Bender, Reinartz, Rolfes; Heung-Min, Kießling, Sam. Subs from: Palop, Yelldell, Stafylidis, Hilbert, Wollscheid, Derdiyok, Castro, Can, Hegeler, Öztunalı, Kohr
United 2 Draw 2 Leverkusen 0
Officials (all Slovenia)
Referee: Damir Skomina
Assistant referees: Matej Žunič, Bojan Ul
Additional assistant referees: Slavko Vinčić, Roberto Ponis