Whilst Manchester United’s season hasn’t exactly gone to plan following the managerial change we were all dreading, one really positive element has been the performances in the Champions League.
A place in the knock-out rounds was confirmed after a 5-0 thrashing away at Leverkusen last month but top spot in Group A was only guaranteed last Tuesday following the victory over Shakhtar at Old Trafford.
The result was a crucial one as, had the Ukrainian’s managed to grab themselves a win, then United’s potential opponents would have included the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
But an unbeaten record so far in the competition means United’s will face considerably lighter opposition when the draw for the last 16 round is made on Monday.
Below are those teams in reverse order of which United will want to face them.
5. AC Milan
Although Milan have had their own domestic troubles this season, they remain the stand out name going into the pot. The former European giants met with Sir Alex on a couple of occasions during his later years at Old Trafford with mixed results and Moyes would rather avoid a tricky test in his first year of Champions League football (excluding qualifiers).
Old foe Mario Balotelli now leads the line for Milan and would surely be up for a tie with United following his days as a City player whilst the likes of Riccardo Montolivo, Philipe Mexes and Kaka would put up a fight in an attempt to redeem their club’s dwindling reputation.
United would do well to avoid such a trip to Turkey when the draw is made, particularly when a strong Galatasaray and a hostile atmosphere await on the other side. A much shorter flight would be desired as the Premier League enters its final third, particularly if United are still struggling at that point.
Galatasaray will believe they can win too. They’ve already knocked Juventus out at the group stages and made a decent account of themselves in the knock-out rounds last year. The likes of Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder have the ability to turn on the magic also, making this a more even affair than you might think.
3. Zenit St Petersburg
United’s only recent encounter with the Russian’s came in the 2008 Super Cup as the Champions League faced the UEFA Cup holders, a match in which Zenit claimed a 2-1 victory.
Zenit beat a decent Porto side to second spot in their group but managed just the one win in six games, against Porto. However, like Galatasaray a trip to Russia come February/March would be regarded as one to avoid during a difficult Premier League season, and United would do well to remain in a similar time zone.
A tie against Olympiakos would represent a strong chance of progression to the quarter-finals for United. The Greek team wouldn’t be ideal distance wise but their overall quality shouldn’t really be enough to genuinely threaten United. Shakhtar and Leverkusen are arguably, on paper, tougher opponents and Moyes was able to claim nine out of 12 points for those games.
They suffered defeat twice at the hands of PSG in the group stages and only qualified due to a better head-to-head record than Benfica who actually did manage to beat PSG. Credit is due for qualifying at all but you would be hard pressed to find good odds on them exiting the Champions League in the last 16.
1. Schalke 04
United’s semi-final opponents of 2011 would be a welcome draw for Moyes. Given how easily Moyes’ side dispatched of Leverkusen (home and away), who occupy second in the Bundesliga, the chance to come up against the side currently in 6th place in Germany would be a dream draw.
Only Manuel Neuer kept the aggregate score down to just 6-1 two years ago in the Champions League semi-final and, despite some talent with the likes of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Julian Draxler, a repeat performance could be on the cards if this tie is pulled out of the bag.