It is one of football’s more sopophiric banalities; that an entity – be it player, manager, or heavily indebted multi-national corporation – must ‘hold his/her’s/its hands up’ in the face of glaring error. Yet, it is a cliché, if one must be used, appropriate to Manchester United’s European performance last season. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team certainly didn’t do anything useful with its collective feet.
Not that United’s great Scot will admit his error, of course, in setting a complacent tone from the off – an accent that his squad was unable to rid through 10 games in two failed competitions as the Reds crashed out of both the Champions and Europa Leagues in embarrassing fashion. No more “stupid mistakes” says United’s 70-year-old manager, even with United facing up to one of the competition’s easier groups.
Indeed, in facing Braga, Galatasaray and CFR Cluj in this season’s Champions League group stage there will be a stern test of Ferguson’s resolve in promising to play his strongest team in the competition. The temptation to rotate heavily will surely remain on the cusp of Ferguson’s thinking. After all, United’s manager made ten changes for last season’s opener away at Benfica.
If Ferguson’s attitude in making heavy and regular changes in last season’s European competitions proved a forebear for his players’ complacency, then surely the same mistake cannot be made twice? Time will tell.
“After the experience of last year, we don’t want to make any stupid errors this time,” admitted Ferguson after Thursday’s draw.
“We will play our strongest team to make sure we get through. We have the experience of playing against Galatasaray in the past and we will always remember the ‘Welcome to Hell’ banners. So it’s always a difficult type of match.
“We have drawn Portuguese clubs a number of times over the past few years – the likes of Benfica, Sporting and Porto – so we have the experience of playing in Portugal on many occasions. Braga are one of the improving teams in that country. Obviously, we’ve never played Cluj before.”
The irony, of course, is that United could hardly have hoped for a better draw in terms of quality. Galatasary’s forward partnership of Johan Elmander and Milan Baroš is unlikely to strike fear into Red hearts, while Braga finished third in the Portuguese Primeira Liga last season. Romanian Champions Cluj has lost 50 per cent of its Champions League games to date.
Yet, the draw will require United to fly more than 7,000 miles over the course of the group stage – one of the longest possible travel burdens, although having trawled around three times further this summer Ferguson’s squad is well used to the joys of the jet-set.
But travel has a mental and physical affect that will prompt rotation in Europe, the Premier League or both. Cynics might suggest Ferguson is likely to go back on his Euro-word. Rant couldn’t possibly comment.
“Of course, you always want short journeys for the group games, but it hasn’t happened in this draw,” confirms midfielder Paul Scholes, who is likely to be rested for much of the Euro campaign.
“We know it won’t be easy – it’s always difficult to get through the group stages as we found last year. But as long as we win our home games and try and pick up a couple of away wins we should be okay. We were disappointing at Old Trafford last season and conceded too many goals.”
It is a pattern that Ferguson cannot afford his team to repeat, although the Reds certainly need some better fortune with defensive injuries.
And while draw may have been kind, the fixture list poses plenty of questions. United will play away matches against Liverpool, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Chelsea and Manchester City after Champions League group ties. Expect some tough games for the Reds during the autumn and early winter.
Meanwhile, whatever team Ferguson selects fans will enjoy away days at new Euro venues at least, with United having never met Portuguese side Braga, nor Romanians Cluj. Braga, Portugal’s third biggest city, is ‘European Youth Capital 2012’, although travelling Reds are more likely to sample the old town tavernas rather than the youth-related cultural, social, and political events in the year-long festival!
Cluj, Romania’s second-city, will host United for the first time at the tight, but wonderfully named Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu. The tie marks another step in the remarkable ascent of the club, which was playing third tier football just a decade ago.
Memories of United’s now infamous visits to Istanbul in 1993 and 1994 will be recalled in the clash against Galatasaray in late November. Eric Cantona was sent-off against the Turks during United’s elimination from the Champions League in 1993, with referee Kurt Rothlisberger later accused of taking a bribe from a Galatasary director.
Fun though those trips may be, success in this year’s competition is paramount, not only for the fans, but the team and United’s bean-counters too. After all, the club lost around £20 million in potential revenues by crashing out of Europe’s premier competition early last season.
It’s just one of many reasons supporters will be closely following Sir Alex’ promise to play his strongest team in Europe this year.
Champions League fixtures
Galatasaray (H) 19 September
Cluj (A) 2 October
Braga (H) 23 October
Braga (A) 7 November
Galatasaray (A) 20 November
Cluj (H) 5 December
Champions League Groups
Group A: Porto, Dynamo Kiev, PSG, Dinamo Zagreb.
Group B: Arsenal, Schalke, Olympiacos, Montpellier.
Group C: AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg, Anderlecht, Malaga.
Group D: Real Madrid, Manchester City, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund.
Group E: Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Nordsjaelland.
Group F: Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov.
Group G: Barcelona, Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Celtic.
Group H: UNITED, Braga, Galatasary, Cluj