After 18 excruciating months, United make their long-awaited return to the Champions League proper tonight as they take on the Dutch champions, PSV.
A 3-1 victory over North-West rivals, Liverpool on Saturday, once again might not have offered too much encouragement by way of performance, but nonetheless, a significant victory against our rivals offered the perfect tonic following defeat to Swansea.
After a drab first-half, the scoreline perhaps doesn’t tell the whole story, but had Brendan Rodgers’ men not been so painfully inept in defence, things mightn’t have been so comfortable for Louis van Gaal’s side.
There were some significant positives for United to take-away however, most notably a breath-taking debut goal from Anthony Martial who will have done nothing to futher prevent likenings to Thierry Henry, yet everything to initially silence those questioning his credentials.
With Wayne Rooney still suffering from a hamstring injury, there are inevitable shouts for the teenager to start in Eindhoven in place of Marouane Fellaini, who occupied the number nine role on Saturday.
With a Champions League group which United will expect to negotiate with relative ease, despite some unenviable trips to both Donetsk and Wolfsburg, the Reds have the opportunity to lay down a marker from the off, proving they have what it takes to dine at Europe’s top table, rather than just making up the numbers.
Louis van Gaal should know all to well of the Dutch champions, particularly their manager, Phillip Cocu, whom he signed for Barcelona during his first spell in charge of the Catalans.
Here are five keys to a United victory over PSV:
Point to prove for Memphis
Bar the Champions League qualifier with Club Brugge at Old Trafford, United’s very own Dutchman, Memphis Depay is yet to really set the world.
The 21-year-old arrived for sum in the region of £30m during the summer from United’s opponents after finishing last season as the Eredivise top scorer, and leading his team to the title in the process.
The raw talent and skill is clearly there, but Memphis has yet to truly showcase his skills to the United faithful during his opening months. The number seven has been cheap in possession and yet to discover the kind of confidence levels that saw him emerge as one of Europe’s most coveted talents last season.
It seems apparent for a player with such capabilities that it’s just a case of when, and not if though where Memphis is concerned. Another lacklustre performance on Saturday didn’t go unnoticed by the manager, who replaced his new prized asset – to good effect – with Ashley Young at half-time.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Young might be given the nod ahead of the Dutchman after his positive showing against Liverpool, but with a huge point to prove against his former club, even Louis might lean towards showing a little sentimentality on this occasion.
He’s already mentioned that despite his affections for his former employers, that he’ll still celebrate if he can find his way onto the scoresheet this evening. The Philips Stadion has seen plenty of his goals in the past, so let’s hope that playing on his old turf brings out the best in our number seven.
Martial the troops
It’s early days yet in his Manchester United career, but Anthony Martial captured the hearts of millions on Saturday, marking his debut for the Reds with a superb solo goal to secure the points over Liverpool.
Arriving on English shores a relative unknown, Martial’s flash of brilliance went some way to justifying the vast sum spent on him and perhaps highlighting we may have quite a talent on our hands after all.
The manager spoke recently, stating that the Frenchman’s capture was not one for him, but instead, for the next manager of Manchester United. With Wayne Rooney injured however, as well as James Wilson’s impending loan move, Martial finds himself with just makeshift striker Marouane Fellaini to compete with for the number nine slot.
Fellaini has been used to good effect as a battering ram up top with United chasing a game or in a last, desperate attempt to salvage a result, but whether he can occupy the role from the start, yet remains to be seen.
The Belgian’s experience will likely see him given the nod in Eindhoven from the start, and while his style can be effective in bringing others into play, you’d be in a rather minuscule minority if you’d rather see he, and not Martial lining up from the start of the game.
Whether part of the starting XI or as a late substitute once more, Martial offers electric pace and – as shown on Saturday – the confidence to run at defenders, something we have seen sparingly since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure.
With his first United milestone already reached, bagging his first Champions League goal for the club will be on the top of his list of priorities.
Luke no further
In what was a drab first half against Liverpool, the one shining light was the performance of United left-back, Luke Shaw. The World’s most expensive teenager, before Anthony Martial came on the scene is enjoying a blistering start to the campaign, hitting the kind of heights and mesmerising performances he could have only dreamt of during his debut season.
The fitness issue has clearly been resolved, with a staggering turn of pace which see’s the 20-year-old bombing forward at leisure, leaving opposition defenders in his wake.
Alongside fellow full-back Matteo Darmian, Shaw has arguably been one of the club’s most consistent performers this season, as he starts to repay the faith which saw Ed Woodward lay out £30m to seal his signature from Southampton last summer.
While Daley Blind had turned in some astute performances from left-back towards the business end of last season, Shaw is now fully growing into the role in which Blind kept warm for him, with the youngster looking to make the slot his own for both club and country for the next decade.
Shaw still lacks a little end product to his game, but he’s certainly on the right track and his presence down United’s left alongside Memphis could be pivotal of securing three points in Eindhoven.
David De Gea might not have been called into action all too often against Liverpool, but it certainly felt great having the Spaniard back from the wilderness and where he belonged.
Quite rightly, the Old Trafford gave the number one a rousing reception throughout following what was a fairly frustrating summer as his mooted switch to Real Madrid fell through at the final hurdle.
It wasn’t the clean sheet which De Gea would have hoped for, but with a strike as spectacular as Christian Benteke’s, United stopper will take none of the blame for being unable to prevent that.
The Spaniard did offer a more calming presence at the back, in front of a defence who have excelled all season, and looked even more relaxed for not having to play in front of Sergio Romero.
De Gea’s performances over the previous two years have led us to expect great things from him almost every time he takes to the field, and that will be no different as United make their long awaited Champions League return. If three points are to come back to Manchester, De Gea will inevitably play a crucial role.
Van Gaal to prove his credentials
Louis van Gaal is no stranger as far as the Champions League is concerned, but, after over a year in charge of Manchester United, only now will the Dutchman be tasting Europe’s elite competition in it’s proper for the first time with the club.
Following the ill-fated David Moyes era, Ed Woodward turned to the then Netherlands coach to guide United back to the Champions League and ensure that once again we were able to compete on the domestic front.
It’s been an expensive journey since then, over £250m in fact spent on new players as well as the Dutchman orchestrating huge clearouts as he attempts to rebuild and reshape the squad into one in which he feels is capable of achieving such success.
It was mission accomplished and nothing more of Van Gaal in his first season at the club, as a fourth place finish ensured that United would, once again, be competing in the European Cup. Louis proved his worth in that respect, but it’s this kind of occasion, which is what he, a high-profile, successful manager was brought to Old Trafford for in the first place. PSV certainly won’t be the most difficult opposition United and Van Gaal will face on this European run, and so even without Wayne Rooney fit, the experience within the squad and the money spent would mean the Dutchman is expected to deliver here.
Over to you, Louis.