After the draw for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League was made several weeks ago, many pundits were discussing Arsenal’s difficult task of being drawn in the same group as Napoli, Borussia Dortmund and Marseille, while Manchester United’s group, Group A, was dismissed as another easy opening group for the Red Devils. However, the deceptively benign Group A can be an easy trap for any potential complacency shown by Manchester United as qualification to the round of 16 will be a very difficult task.
Group A may lack the big names, but David Moyes recently revealed that Sir Alex Ferguson had pointed out that United faced their toughest Champions League group in years. While the average Premier League fan may write off Shaktar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad, the United management team will be aware of the daunting assignment that lies ahead.
Shakhtar Donetsk surprised everyone last season. The Ukrainian champions displayed their strength and attacking verve as they beat Chelsea to the second place spot in the group that was topped by Italian champions Juventus. They have compensated the losses of Willian, Mkhitaryan and Fernandinho with the signings of Taison, Bernard and Douglas Costa. The jury is still out on Shakhtar after selling their three best players but the replacements they have brought in should be able to adequately sustain them. Regardless, Shakhtar will remain a daunting prospect for any side that travels to Ukraine and attempts to nick a point in what will be an intimidating atmosphere in the Donbass Arena. Lucescu, who remains in charge of Shaktar, is a highly competent manager and will ensure that Shakhtar continue to play a vibrant and attacking style of football that has seen them grow in recent years. United could easily struggle against Shakhtar in a similar fashion that Chelsea did last season.
Manchester United fans will remember their side’s loss suffered at the hands of Leverkusen in the Champions League semi-finals in 2002, but may still deem them to be a spent force. However, such a perception is misguided. After Bayern and Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen have rightly earned their title as the next best side in the Bundesliga They have been on a steady rise over the past year. As German football received plenty of plaudits last season due to the exploits of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in Europe, Leverkusen quietly went from strength to strength in the Bundesliga. Sami Hyypia’s side strung together a record number of consecutive victories and finished in third place behind Dortmund by a single point. Bayern, in particular, struggled against Leverkusen last season, losing to them at home and clinching a rather fortuitous away win. Die Werkself have thrived under the leadership of Liverpool legend Hyypia and have a robust squad that have proven to be very difficult to beat.
Despite the sale of Andre Schurrle to Chelsea, Leverkusen have found an adequate replacement in Korean attacker Hueng Son Min who has so far thrived at his new club. Together with the speedy Sidney Sam and the prolific Stefan Keissling (Bundesliga top scorer last season), Leverkusen have been extremely effective in launching counter attacks and have devastated teams on the break. Bayer Leverkusen have four victories and one loss so far in this season’s Bundesliga and appear to have built on the success of last season. They look to be a very formidable unit and will prove to be a very tough nut for United to crack. Leverkusen, with the squad they possess, should be expected to qualify from the group.
Real Sociedad could well be the Atletic Bilbao of two seasons ago that ravaged Manchester United in the Europa League at Old Trafford. The plucky Spanish outfit came back from 2-0 to upset Barcelona 3-2 last season and convincingly dumped Olympique Lyon out of the qualifying round this season. French winger Anoine Greizmann has been growing leaps and bounds so far and will be a player to watch out for at United. The emphatic win over Lyon showed the Real Socieded were ready for life after the sale of midfield asset Irramendi to Real Madrid this summer. The Spanish side play a fluent game and are more than capable of causing United plenty of problems.
Today will be an important day for David Moyes as he begins his first ever game of Champions League football. The former Everton manager does not boast a huge deal of experience of Europe but with the squad and reputation of the club he currently manages, he should have no issues in overcoming his relative lack of experience. The recent signing of Marouane Felliani, although not particularly celebrated by the media, may prove to be a decisive piece in the puzzle for United as they embark on their European journey. The big Belgian can finally be the effective foil that Michael Carrick so desperately needed all these years. The Englishman can finally be given some freedom and more room to add to the creativity and passing in the middle that United have lacked so often. With the proper application, attention to detail and understanding of their opponents, United can successfully weather the hidden storm that is Group A.
Editor’s note: For viewers in the United States, the game between Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen will be on television today at 2:45pm ET on FOX Sports 1 and FOX Soccer 2Go. In the other Group A match, Real Sociedad plays Shakhtar Donestsk at 2:45pm ET on FOX Soccer 2Go.