Manchester United are the most accomplished club in English football. They’re serial trophy winners in almost every competition, but for some reason the UEFA Champions League has always been a competition that has thrown United off their rhythm. United have reached the final 5 times, and have been victorious 3 times (1968, 1999, 2008). As impressive as it is to win the competition even once, the Champions League seems like the one summit of club football United have struggled to master. Even some of Sir Alex’s most elite sides were bested at both early and late stages of the competition.
Lately, however, that has been the case with any competition. Premier League performances never a certainty anymore, and José Mourinho’s former club Chelsea has knocked United out of the FA Cup 2 years in a row. Focusing on league stability has been a primary target since David Moyes, but if that remains out of reach in the campaign ahead perhaps Mourinho’s focus should be on bringing a fourth Champions League title to the club.
Yes, winning the Champions League is much easier said than done. Real Madrid have become a dominant force in Europe yet again, Bayern Munich have continued to build around a remarkable squad, Barcelona have given Messi a phenomenal supporting cast over the years, Neymar’s PSG are looking more lethal every day, and Cristiano Ronaldo gives Juventus a huge boost in their continental ambitions. United are not considered one of the contenders in the tournament, but perhaps it could be an opportunity for Mourinho and the squad to shake off some of the negativity that has surrounded the club since the end of last season.
José Mourinho has a history of quick and prolific success at multiple clubs throughout his career, and he is notably accomplished in knockout competitions. Although Manchester United’s current squad may not have the “Football Heritage” he desires to compete in the Champions League, expectations are still high for a manager who has taken teams to at least the semi-finals on 8 occasions, and won the competition twice. Additionally Mourinho has guided teams to 2 Europa League titles and 7 other various domestic cups, making him one of the most seasoned managers in knockout football. His sides have ranged from underdogs to tournament favorites, with his latest United side being somewhere right in the middle, but that is where Mourinho thrives.
Mourinho’s United are talented, but also young and largely inexperienced at this level. Beyond Nemanja Matić, Paul Pogba and David De Gea many of the core players had very little experience in the Champions League until last season, other than Louis Van Gaal’s doomed 2015 group stage campaign. The Europa League triumph in 2017 was the first taste of extended knockout football the club had seen in years, and it pushed the season to the brink of disaster with everything on the line in the final to achieve a spot in the Champions League the next season. United’s quality came through in the end, and added a third trophy to Mourinho’s debut season.
Finishing the 2016/17 season, in which both Zlatan Ibrahimović and Eric Bailly were lost to season-ending injuries, was a difficult task in which United’s young squad showed class and fortitude. They’ve since grown and gotten a couple reinforcements as well. They are by no means Mourinho’s best side, but Mourinho’s teams perform better when they’re the underdog. FC Porto and Inter Milan were undoubtedly strong sides, but the opposition they faced on the road to victory were considered vastly superior. United’s reputation has sunken below that of Manchester City and Liverpool in Europe, and with the outlook of the Premier League once again worsening Europe may be United’s best hope for galvanizing fans with meaningful victories. Many hoped that would be the case last season, but the infamous loss to Sevilla and press conference rant drastically changed the mood of the season.
Mourinho’s accomplishments are part of what made his football heritage remarks surprising. Mourinho’s entire reputation is built upon defeating the notion of football heritage. Somewhat ironically he’s now managed arguably the two biggest clubs in all of sport, but he finds himself in the unique position of still being overlooked. He has a side capable of greatness that left fans and critics alike underwhelmed last season, but the new season brings an opportunity to succeed away from the struggles in the league.
In the first match of the Champions League campaign United handled BSC Young Boys with ease in a 3-0 win Switzerland. The victory was exactly what United needed at the moment, giving them 3 points and a goal difference advantage, and a confident display in Mourinho’s 4-3-3 experiment. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford had plenty of chances in possession to create goal scoring opportunities, and Paul Pogba displayed excellent composure as captain in a man of the match performance that saw him rack up two goals and an assist. Diogo Dalot also put in a noteworthy debut for the club opposite a returning Luke Shaw, who suffered a scary injury on international duty.
Beating BSC Young Boys is expected of a club like United, but what is most important is getting 3 points from a road game early. Valencia and Juventus are United’s next opponents, each game at Old Trafford before the return fixture in the second half of the group stage schedule.
The road ahead is perilous for United, and being in a group with Juventus doesn’t make matters simpler either, but United have the experience and talent at nearly every position to at least go out and compete against every team in Europe. Most fans have come to accept that this team isn’t good enough on paper to dominate the way that Madrid does in Europe, but if Mourinho does what he does best in cup competition, he can turn this underdog United team into genuine contenders.