There are few more ideal fixtures on the eve of a new Champions League campaign than Crystal Palace at home. That Manchester United still managed to make hard work of it against ten men should be noted, worked on then quickly forgotten. A win with a clean sheet and no fresh injury concerns is suitable preparation. The league still remains United’s priority yet there is some unfinished business with the Champions League.
Considering last season’s ignominious exit to Real Madrid, you get the sense that the players have the utmost desire to go far in this season’s competition. After the fallout of Nani’s harsh sending off, there will be players chomping at the bit to set the record straight. Whether United would have gone on to win the competition is in some doubt yet on the night few would argue that until the sending off, the plan was ticking along perfectly.
Placing blame for the defeat on the actions of the referee is folly. The tie was not lost due to the red card but the reaction to it. Jose Mourinho immediately saw a gap and brought on Luka Modric to exploit the space. For the crucial ten minutes that followed, the players were shell-shocked and Real Madrid scored twice. European campaigns can go up in smoke that brutally and the hope is that David Moyes can learn quickly.
The lack of European experience was a gaping hole in his CV upon getting the job yet the only way he will gain the requisite knowledge begins against Bayer Leverkusen. Many will be intrigued by how he sets out his team and whether his pragmatic approach to big games with Everton will be repeated. He is known for opting for one up-front which should suit playing in the Champions League where a slower tempo and ball possession is key.
Should he start, the role given to Marouane Fellaini could be indicative of how he sets the team up. He was only given a cameo appearance against Crystal Palace and lined up alongside Michael Carrick, generally keeping the ball moving and occasionally he drifted further up field. You can expect much more of the same as with his signing comes the hope that he can fill the gaping hole that emerged in United’s midfield against Madrid.
His signing will likely displace Tom Cleverley, thus providing a more physical presence in midfield and one which will hopefully gift Carrick a bit more freedom. In the Champions League, positional awareness and ball retention will be tested more rigorously and you would hope that Fellaini will exert more than a modicum of self-discipline. With one up front, there is also the option of a midfield trio to counter against big teams whereby you would expect Fellaini to operate at the peak to press and then win the ball further up the pitch.
What may be of slight concern is a lack of attacking intent yet with the restart of the Champions League an opportunity to set that right has presented itself. A win in the first group game against Leverkusen will be paramount and a few goals from open play would be ideal. Fellaini could be the key operator in making that happen.