The reason why both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were sacked by Manchester United was their inability to guide Manchester United to the Champions League. The former was sacked two days after it became mathematically impossible for the team to finish in the top four, even though the reality was that it had been confirmed much earlier.
Van Gaal was sacked two days after winning the FA Cup with United in 2016. They finished fifth that season and therefore missed out on qualification for the elite European competition.
In contrast, Jose Mourinho booked United’s place in the Champions League at the end of his first season in charge after winning the Europa League. United bowed out in the first knock-out round following the group stage though, after putting up very little fight against Sevilla.
Still, in the following season, United finished second and again qualified for the competition, and supporters will be hoping for improved performances in this campaign.
United’s draw could have been kinder but it wasn’t too bad. Valencia are currently in the bottom half of the Spanish league, while Young Boys are running away at the top in Switzerland. The team to beat are Juventus, currently undefeated in Serie A, who earned a 1-0 win at Old Trafford without even having to try.
Following the defeat, Mourinho claimed United’s aim was always to finish second behind Juventus, which drew plenty of criticism from the media and supporters. However, the reality is the team that has won seven league titles on the bounce, reaching two European Cup finals in this time, and who have just added the current Ballon d’Or winner to their squad, were always the obvious favourites to finish top of the group.
However, if Mourinho can shut up shop in Turin and earn a draw, then United will be one step closer to qualifying for the knock out phase of the competition.
Pogba key on his return to Turin
Pogba will be key to that, as he returns to a stadium he played at for four years, winning four league titles among other silverware during his stint there. When he plays well, United tend to play well too, but the problem is, as it has always been since he moved to Old Trafford, his performances are so inconsistent.
Too often he will be fairly anonymous in the first half, only to spring in to action after the break. He’s assisted more goals than anyone else for United this season and has proven to be a driving force in plenty of the games they have won. You would imagine the occasion of returning to face Juventus would provide him with the added motivation he needs to show up, but there are no guarantees.
Anthony Martial is the man of the moment though, scoring five goals in his last four league appearances for United. While Mourinho might have been surprised to see the forward come in to his own, it’s been no shock to the United fans who have backed him since his explosive first season at the club.
All of those five goals have proven to be crucial too, with him scoring the equaliser against Newcastle before United went on to win in injury time, both goals in the draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, United’s second in their 2-1 win over Everton, before scoring the equaliser against Bournemouth at the weekend before their late win.
During this recent spell, when Martial has forced his way back in to the starting team, he has outperformed the in-form players in the league. Yet he did very little in the home leg against Juve and will surely be looking to make amends for that.
Alexis Sanchez, another player who hasn’t shone under Mourinho, has seen an improvement in his recent performances too. He scored the all-important winner against Newcastle, before playing a key role in United’s most recent victory at the weekend. He assisted Martial’s equaliser and lead the line well in Romelu Lukaku’s absence.
Rumours suggest he isn’t happy off the field but there is no denying how hard he works on it. Yet he hasn’t provided the magic the supporters were expecting when he signed at the beginning of the year. The Champions League is a competition he saw his former team, Arsenal, embarrassed in far too often during his time there. He will be looking to see what he can do on the big stage at his current team to erase those memories.
United have their work cut out for them if they are to get a result against Juventus. The only advantage they might have is that Juve are likely to underestimate them given how poor they were when they met a few weeks ago. But that will only prove to be useful if United show up on Wednesday night.
Qualification to the next round doesn’t depend on United winning away to Juve, but any points they can take would be a bonus, ahead of their two easier remaining fixtures in the group stage. Mourinho will likely have a trick or two up his sleeve but chances of this being end-to-end excitement are slim to none.