When Manchester United last contested a Champions League qualifier back in 2005, the tie was over at the halfway stage after goals from Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo did for the Hungarian side Debrecen at Old Trafford.
On the evidence of United’s laboured attacking displays so far this campaign, Louis van Gaal’s side may have a less straightforward evening in store when they host Club Brugge on Tuesday in the first leg of a play-off for a place in the group stage.
United do not want to miss out on the riches of the Champions League for a second year running – beating Brugge alone will guarantee €14 million (£10m), while winning the competition would be worth an estimated €75m – but Van Gaal’s team have yet to demonstrate the kind of attacking fluency and intensity that routinely blew away Continental visitors to Old Trafford in the Sir Alex Ferguson years.
United made it two wins out of two with Friday night’s 1-0 victory at Aston Villa but they have managed only three shots on target in their opening two fixtures, and by Van Gaal’s admission were guilty of “too many unnecessary ball losses” at Villa Park. Adnan Januzaj offered a reminder of his potential with his winning goal and glimpses of his ability to drift away from defenders, but it was a night to forget for both Rooney and the £31m Memphis Depay, and underlined why United are pursuing the signature of Barcelona’s Pedro.
Aston Villa vs Manchester United player ratings
Aston Villa vs Manchester United player ratings
1/22 Aston Villa: Brad Guzan - 5
Came off his line well to snuff out Depay and was rarely called upon.
2/22 Leandro Bacuna - 5
Struggled to contain United's attacks down the left flank.
3/22 Micah Richards - 5
A couple of rash challenges, but then also some impressive interceptions. It will be interesting to see him finally get a run of games.
4/22 Ciaran Clark - 5
Played the ball long far too often. More composure is needed.
5/22 Jordan Amavi - 7
Promising when he did get forward. All too rare. Impressive night for the 21-year-old.
6/22 Jordan Veretout - 5
The most memorable thing he did was kick out at Januzaj after a challenge in the first half.
7/22 Idrissa Gueye - 6
Arguably the best player on the park early on, undid his hard work by letting Januzaj get in for the goal.
8/22 Ashley Westwood - 5
Passed well enough but could not provide a cutting edge.
9/22 Jordan Ayew - 5
Forced to live off scraps but did not make the most of his rare chances.
10/22 Gabriel Agbonlahor - 5
Plenty of effort but little product.
11/22 Scott Sinclair - 5
Looked dangerous on the ball, but his decision making in key areas was lacking.
12/22 Man Utd: Sergio Romero - 6
Had a shocker in the warm up, but largely untested in the main event. Solid hands when called upon.
13/22 Matteo Darmian - 6
Another impressive display. The Italian has probably made the best start of any of United's new boys.
14/22 Chris Smalling - 7
The Englishman has done something right over summer as he seems far more assured this season than he ever has.
15/22 Daley Blind - 6
Solid enough, decent in possession, but yet to convince in the centre of defence. He should not be seen as a long-term option.
16/22 Luke Shaw - 6
The England international made a couple of excellent tackles early on, and pushed forward to help United spread the play in attack.
17/22 Michael Carrick - 6
Produced a collector's item; a misplaced pass, but was composed throughout.
18/22 Morgan Schneiderlin - 6
The Frenchman seemed settled. Could have done better with a header at the back post, but his overall performance was good.
19/22 Juan Mata - 6
The Spaniard's superb pass set up the opening goal. Few players possess such exquisite vision. Poor defensively.
20/22 Adnan Januzaj - 6
His inclusion was vindicated with a well taken goal, courtesy of a kind deflection.
21/22 Memphis Depay - 5
The 21-year-old could not be accused of a lack of effort, but not much came off for him. Yet to spark into life.
22/22 Wayne Rooney - 4
Never sparked into life. More is to be expected now that Rooney is the side's attacking spearhead.
Against Brugge, United will face a team who beat Panathinaikos 4-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round and enjoyed a 15-game unbeaten run en route to the quarter-finals of last season’s Europa League, conceding only six goals.
Brugge are missing seven players through injury, yet their coach, Michel Preud’homme – who as Belgium’s goalkeeper was beaten by David Platt’s extra-time volley at Italia 90 – can call on his big target man Tom de Sutter, who has postponed a transfer to Turkish side Bursaspor to play in the tie. Brugge play a direct game, and De Sutter could help exploit Daley Blind’s lack of height in United’s central defence.
After the lukewarm response to United’s opening displays, their summer recruit Bastian Schweinsteiger spoke like a true German, pointing out that they had done the most important thing – winning. “Of course we can improve, but still we are putting chances away, especially today [at Villa],” he said. “It’s very important to control the game against Brugge. We have to score and the most important thing too is that we are like a team in defence.”
A key figure in the defensive solidity which has brought two 1-0 wins has been their other new midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin. Unlike some of the players in front of him, he barely gave a pass away at Villa Park.
Schweinsteiger himself played down Bayern coach Pep Guardiola’s claim he had not been fully fit for three years – “I won the World Cup, so you have to be fit!” – and added: “I came a little bit late to the team, and then I had a small calf injury in America. But I am getting in better shape and within one or two weeks I will be at the highest level.”
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