It can be easy to forget that Manchester United aren’t quite the experienced heads in their Champions League group this season. Instead, that tag goes to Mircea Lucescu and his Shakhtar Donetsk side, with Real Sociedad’s last outing in the competition being in 2003 and Sami Hyypia now without Sascha Lewandowski alongside him in the dugout for Bayer Leverkusen.
David Moyes’ first big test in Europe as United manager comes with the welcome of the Bundesliga side to Old Trafford. More than anything, and much like we’ve seen in the Premier League, we should get an early indicator as to what to expect from the new United boss. There will be little in the way of a safety net if he replicates Alex Ferguson’s showing two years ago by finishing third.
But how do the other group participants look?
Real Sociedad are the one for the hipsters, taking things to even greater extremes than regulars Shakhtar. The La Liga side have been impressive thus far, sweeping past Lyon in the qualifying round. Lyon, despite also being a young side, are far from newcomers to the competition. Sociedad, however, and especially at the Stade de Gerland, looked like the experienced Champions League side of the two.
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Sociedad would likely have been preparing for the departure of Asier Illarramendi this past summer following his standout performances last season and at the U21 European Championship. In his place comes Ruben Pardo, another young midfielder from the academy in the mould of Xabi Alonso. He may lack experience, but he is capable of putting together a number of very mature performances.
It’s the La Real attack, however, that will cause United the most problems. The club completed an exceptional piece of business by snapping up Haris Seferovic from Fiorentina. The 21-year-old striker hit two goals in his first two games. He adds even more pace to the already lightning quick attack of Antoine Griezmann and Carlos Vela, with captain Xabi Prieto providing the experience and calm from various positions in the midfield.
Griezmann’s volley against Lyon in the first leg was sensational, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary; the French youngster is capable of taking apart some of the very best defences in Europe. As for Vela, he’s well on course to emulating his outstanding season last term. He very much looks a player reborn from his troubled Arsenal days.
Shakhtar Donetsk are always an interesting watch. Lucescu may have lost Willian and Fernandinho to the Premier League, as well as Henrikh Mkhitaryan to Dortmund, but he’s added Brazilian wonderkid Bernard, Fernando from Gremio, the obvious replacement for Fernandinho, and also Fred, who starred for Brazil at the Confederations Cup.
The Ukrainians are yet another team who are capable of dismantling United with pace and quick, incisive passing, though Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney may find a lot of joy against goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov. Shakhtar are always considered dark horses in the Champions League, and results against the Ukrainians will certainly be vital in order for United to escape the group.
At this stage of the season, nothing has really changed for Bayer Leverkusen. They currently occupy third place in the Bundesliga and once again look to be trapped in purgatory, neither going forward nor losing a European place. But that could change this season with Hyypia at the helm.
Replacing Andre Schurrle on the left flank is Son Heung-Min from Hamburg, while Emre Can, on a two-year loan spell from Bayern Munich, will certainly add to an already strong midfield. Stefan Kiessling is the one to watch, however. The striker finished top scorer in the Bundesliga last season and could cause United some real problems.
There is fortune that United and Moyes have avoided the giants of European football, for now at least, but the Champions League will rarely offer a comfortable path through the group stages. The teams United have been drawn against this season are notably stronger than those who made life so difficult for them two seasons ago. Quite plainly, Moyes’ reserved approach simply won’t cut it here. The Spanish and Ukrainians have the tools to unlock a defence one way or another, while Leverkusen are still an impressive outfit to be able to hold the position of third best team in Germany.
Important results for Moyes to take note of: Leverkusen beat Bayern Munich last season at the Allianz Arena for their only loss of the entire Bundesliga campaign, while Real Sociedad dished out Barcelona’s first defeat of last season at the Anoeta.
Where will United find most difficulty in their Champions League group?
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