A familiar face returns to Old Trafford on Tuesday for a critical Champions League showdown. Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus enter the match as the class of Group H, two points above second place Manchester United. Both sides feel frustrated after unsatisfying draws at the weekend.
On Saturday, the Reds blew a golden chance to end Chelsea’s unbeaten run and send shockwaves through the Premier League. Antonio Rudiger’s free header gave the hosts an early lead, but an inspired United emerged from the dressing room at halftime and flipped the script behind an Anthony Martial brace.
But, during the lengthy second half stoppage time, that suspect defense broke down again. Ross Barkley slammed home the equalizer after United failed to clear the ball off a set piece. What should have been a statement win for Manchester United instead ended in a 2-2 stalemate.
Afterwards, José Mourinho sounded unimpressed with the point: “If you say before the match one point at Stamford Bridge, it’s always a good result because it’s so difficult for teams to win here. But after the game, the way the game was, it’s an awful result for us and a phenomenal result for them.”
United can’t keep digging themselves a first-half hole only to switch on after the break. That might work against Newcastle, but not Chelsea. And certainly not Juventus.
Before Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Genoa, Massimiliano Allegri’s side had won all ten games this season. They’re well clear atop the Serie A table and already look all but certain to make it eight Scudetti in a row. For Juve, though, this season isn't about domestic honors.
The Bianconeri crave the European Cup. After Allegri steered them to two Champions League finals in the last four years — only to come up short both times — Juve’s board shelled out big money for Cristiano Ronaldo to push them over the top. That’s why Ronaldo is there. To bring his Champions League magic to Turin.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner looks as good as ever. Ronaldo scored his 400th goal (in Europe’s top five leagues) on Saturday, taking his season total to five. Plus, he’s chipped in with five assists. Father Time hasn’t caught up with CR7 yet.
But it’s not all about Ronaldo. With Mario Mandzukic up top, Paulo Dybala either out wide or in the hole, Miralem Pjanic pulling the strings in midfield, and a Cancelo-Bonucci-Chiellini-Sandro backline, Juve are loaded all over the pitch.
The Bianconeri dodged a bullet when UEFA handed Ronaldo just a one match suspension for his red card against Valencia. He sat out the 3-0 trouncing of Young Boys, but will be back in the starting eleven on Tuesday.
Another slight concern for Juventus is the condition of Paulo Dybala’s knee. The Argentinian left his country’s 1-0 loss to Brazil with an injury, but initial reports suggest that it’s not as severe as first suspected. Allegri held him out of the Genoa match, but most think he’ll be available for the Old Trafford trip.
Whether Dybala plays or not, Manchester United’s defense must step up. The much-maligned unit has already allowed 18 goals in all competitions this season. That’s not going to cut it against a side as good as the Italian champs.
But Mourinho believes that the two poor goals conceded at Chelsea by his backline were not representative of the overall defensive performance. “We controlled their triggers,” the United boss explained. “Hazard was controlled and I’ve never seen Jorginho play so little like he did today. We were completely in control.”
Anthony Martial’s resurgence gives another reason for optimism. With three goals in his last two matches, the 22-year-old attacker is back to his best and a surefire starter on the left against Juventus.
This is a huge game for Manchester United’s Champions League prospects. The club sits in a precarious position in Group H, facing back-to-back matches with Juve while Valencia feast on Young Boys. By the time United host Young Boys late next month, it’s very possible that Valencia will be ahead in the standings. Unless United take some points off Juventus.
It’s also a big game for the visitors. A win at Old Trafford would give Juventus a commanding grip over Group H and pretty much book their ticket to the knockout round. After the Genoa draw, Allegri suggested his players were looking ahead to the United match. “We played, from a certain point of view, with our heads in Manchester,” he said.
United’s result at Chelsea certainly feels disappointing now, but it shows that these players haven’t quit on Jose Mourinho and can go toe-to-toe with the Premier League’s best. But, please, enough with the poor starts. Manchester United need 90 minutes of focused excellence to beat Juventus on Tuesday.