Manchester United’s Champions League campaign opens in Bern on Wednesday evening when the Reds take on BSC Young Boys. And, despite plenty of pundits yukking it up about the name “Young Boys,” the defending Swiss Super League champions are no joke.
Managed by Gerardo Seoane, Young Boys have won all six league matches so far this season and qualified for the Champions League group stage for the first time in club history. Over the weekend, they defeated FC Schaffhausen in the Swiss Cup to keep up their perfect domestic record.
But, hopefully to United’s advantage, Young Boys played 120 minutes in that 3-2 cup tie. After being pegged back deep into stoppage time, they eventually won via a Mohamed Aly Camara goal in the 120th minute. This was no easy stroll in the park for the Swiss champs.
United did a bit better, mustering just enough to deal Watford their first defeat of the 2018/19 season. Goals from Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling gave the Reds an early 2-0 lead, but José Mourinho’s men endured a nervy second half and just barely hung on for a 2-1 win. David de Gea once again came to the rescue with an incredible save just seconds before the full-time whistle.
After a dismal start to the Premier League season, United appear to be rounding into form at just the right time. Back-to-back wins have restored some much-needed confidence and quieted talk of another Mourinho third season meltdown.
While the boss played practically the same side in both wins, three likely changes for Wednesday are Luke Shaw, Diogo Dalot, and Marcus Rashford.
Although Ashley Young replaced the concussed Shaw at Vicarage Road, Mourinho quashed any suspense and already announced his return to the starting eleven. “Luke Shaw plays Wednesday,” the manager said after beating Watford. “We can’t do it with one left back. They both are playing well and they both are different players. It’s good for us to have these two options.”
Diogo Dalot also looks to be in line for his club debut. The 19-year-old Portuguese right back came to Old Trafford this summer with a minor knee injury, but cleared the last fitness hurdle with a strong performance in last week’s U23 match versus Reading. Unseating captain Antonio Valencia won’t be easy, but Dalot is finally ready to fight for a place in the starting eleven.
Marcus Rashford missed out on Saturday as he began serving his three-match suspension for a red card against Burnley. That doesn’t apply in the Champions League, so Rashford should be back in the lineup after an impressive international break for England. Whether he starts up top as the central striker or on one side of an attacking front line remains to be seen.
A season ago, United cruised through the group stage in top spot. But that meant nothing when they tamely bowed out to Sevilla in the first knockout round. Now, the Reds are aiming for the latter stages of the competition, but must go through a far more difficult group to get there.
Drawn together with Juventus and Valencia, United have a battle on their hands just to get back to the knockout stage. It’s not quite a group of death, but the Reds really need to hit the ground running to give them the best chance of advancement.
And that means full points from Young Boys, both home and away.
One possible complication: the artificial pitch at Stade de Suisse. YB midfielder Djibril Sow hopes the unusual surface throws the Reds off their game: “Manchester United are a big team and they have great technical players, but I hope the pitch will make a big difference. We're big underdogs, but we will try to give our best. Our pitch is a plus for us and we will do anything to win.”
With matches looming against Juventus and Valencia, Manchester United must shrug off the short week, artificial pitch, and in-form Swiss competition. There's not much margin for error in this group. Anything less than a win puts the Reds behind the eight ball in Group H and restarts all that crisis talk before a difficult league match at the weekend.