Ambition. Wayne Rooney once accused the club of lacking a certain quantum of it. There’s certainly no lack of appetite to regain credibility in European circles, but the ‘process’ – as Louis van Gaal might put it – is ongoing. The Dutchman was winner of the Champions League with Ajax and a finalist at Bayern Munich; and he has aspirations to regain the trophy with Manchester United before he retires in 2017. Van Gaal has two seasons to achieve that goal.
Talk of victory in Europe’s premier competition is, of course, premature, especially after United’s loss at PSV Eindhoven. The defeat places the club’s status firmly in context, almost five years after the last of three finals in four seasons between 2008 and 2011. Instead, United is now a club now rebuilding its reputation on the continent after missing out on European football altogether last season.
If anything, the loss in Eindhoven served to highlight United’s regression – and talk of the club’s lowly European status will resurface if this campaign proves to be shorter than anticipated. And it may well be should Van Gaal’s men suffer another reverse on Wednesday night against a tough Wolfsburg side. PSV proved there are no guarantees even if United faces none of Europe’s élite clubs in Group B.
Still, Van Gaal’s ambition remains and the Dutchman appears content with the “progression in the maturity and balance of the team” – especially since Antony Martial came into the side to add a genuine high-class number nine where Rooney once roamed. It leaves United’s manager dreaming of success this season, perhaps ahead of the Dutchman’s own schedule.
“Reaching the final is an aim and winning the final is a little bit of luck,” said Van Gaal on Monday.
“I think Manchester United knows and remembers that fantastically, when they won the Champions League, because I saw at that time the people of Bayern Munich already going downstairs and then they scored in the last minute and, in injury time, Manchester United scored. You can say that was quality but when you have seen the match then you know it was not like that. So you need also luck.
“To get in the final, that is already a fantastic result. In the media, it is nothing because second is not the best. That’s the only thing that counts. But, for me, as a manager, I have to say when you reach the final then you have done fantastically. If you win the final then, of course, all the honours go to your team and yourself but I know better.”
For now United seek both quality and luck with Wolfsburg in town on Matchday 2. The German side enjoyed an unbeaten start to the season until faced with Robert Lewendowski’s Bayern Munich last week. The Polish striker scored five and nine minutes as Die Wölfe suffered the wrong end of a 5-1 defeat. It’s a result that might offer a false impression of Wolfsburg’s quality.
One of Van Gaal’s key players at Old Trafford is likely to be Bastian Schweinsteiger, the first German to play for the club. Schweinsteiger has become increasingly dominant in recent weeks as the 31-year-old’s fitness levels have increased, while the player’s natural leadership skills have come to the fore. Rooney may be the club’s official captain, but Schweinsteiger has become it’s leader. Against fellow German internationals Julian Draxler and Max Kruse, Schweinsteiger’s experience may tell.
“He was my former captain with Philipp Lahm at Bayern Munich so I think that he is also very worthwhile off the pitch,” added Van Gaal.
“You can see it already now because he is already accepted as a leading player, and that is why also we have bought him from Bayern Munich. I believe in the mixture between youth and older players. He is an example for the younger players to follow so I am very happy with him.”
Meanwhile, Dieter Hecking’s side enjoyed a 1-0 win over CSKA Moscow on Matchday 1, although the side could only manage a draw with Hannover at the weekend – a hangover, perhaps, from heavy defeat to Munich. Hecking lost Kevin de Bruyne in the summer – a player who had contributed 43 goals and assists combined last season. Yet, the replacements are high quality too: £25 million attacking midfielder Draxler and Germany international Kruse. Both should start against United on Wednesday.
The club has achieved little in European terms, although the side made the Europa League quarter-finals last season. Still, Hecking’s side has an early advantage in four-horse race – with United already playing catch-up.
“I don’t have dreams. I prefer reality and there is a lot of hard work in front of us, but we are in a good position after our home win against Moscow,” said Hecking.
“We are aiming to get a result. If we can get a result it will give us confidence. We are facing a good team and most will expect a home win and before the draw I would have said United would have finished top of the group. Their defeat at PSV makes it more interesting. That creates a bit of pressure for United. It is up to us to increase the pressure on them.”
History is on the Reds’ side at least. United has never lost the first two games of a Champions League campaign, while no German team has kept a clean sheet in the past 16 Champions League games against United.
The test is real though – just the kind of fixture where Schweinsteiger adds most value. The German captain adds experience and high quality in a team that has little in European terms, as a unit, of the former and has inconsistently applied the latter.
“I scored my first goal for Bayern away at Wolfsburg, so I have good memories,” said Schweinsteiger. “But I always remember it wasn’t easy to play against them. They were always tough matches. Wolfsburg have a good team, especially over the last three or four years. They have improved a lot.”
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal is without midfielders Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera with minor injuries. Antonio Valencia faces a late test, but could start at right-back. Marcos Rojo has missed the past two matches with a hamstring problem picked up at Southampton and did not feature in training on Tuesday. Phil Jones or Paddy McNair could play if Valencia does not make the team, with Daley Blind moving to left-back.
Van Gaal is again likely to deploy Rooney at number 10 behind French teenager Martial, with support from Juan Mata and Memphis Depay from wide areas. Van Gaal may draft one of Donald Love, Guillermo Varel, James Weir and Josh Harrop into the matchday squad.
Wolfsburg midfielder Luiz Gustavo has a knee injury, while defender Robin Knoche, winger Vieirinha and goalkeeper Koen Casteels are also out of the game.
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Varela, Love, Weir, Harrop, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Young, Wilson
Wolfsburg subs from: Grün, Schäfer, Ascues, Felipe, Jung, Arnold, Seguin, F Rodríguez, Bendtner
Match officials (HUN)
Referee: Viktor Kassai
Assistant referees: György Ring, Vencel Tóth
Additional assistant referees: Tamás Bognar, Ádám Farkas
Fourth official: Peter Berettyán
United 2-1 Wolfsburg
£1 bet club
Draxler and Martial to score @ 11/1
Match graphic by @cole007