Manchester United felt that luck wasn’t with them when drawn with PSG, RB Leipzig and the Turkish champions Basaksehir in last season’s Champions League group stage. United started well with wins in Paris and by putting five past the Germans, but then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side fell apart and failed to qualify.
United dropped into the Europa League, looked much more convincing and reached the final where Villarreal prevented Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lifting his first trophy as United manager.
The Norwegian was hurting after that defeat on penalties and felt a pain in his stomach all summer. It’s little consolation, but United have the chance to avenge the loss in Gdansk after drawing Villarreal in Champions League. The two teams have met five time before since 2005 — and every game was a stalemate after 90 minutes, with the first four ending 0-0. At least this one can’t go to penalties.
Villarreal started this season with two league draws and a defeat to Chelsea in the Super Cup. Their 24,500 capacity stadium had prices as steep as the away end for past encounters and Villarreal are in the competition after winning the Europa League. Not that United fans want reminding of that.
Three-time European champions United avoided powerhouses such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, PSG, Dortmund and Sevilla in the draw who were all in the same pot, having not won their leagues last season. Long gone are the days when United were Pot 1 stalwarts.
The schedule of the matches will be decided in the coming days, with United also drawn with Atalanta, who finished third in Serie A, before reigning champions Juventus on goal difference. Like United, Atalanta lost only six of their 38 league games last term and no Italian team scored more than their 90 goals. In the Champions League, Atalanta went out to Real Madrid.
United have never played Atalanta, from Bergamo near Milan, in a competitive game. Gian Piero Gasperini’s attacking side play in the remodelled Gewiss Stadium, capacity 21,747.
He’s been in charge since 2016 and turned the provincial club into one of the most exciting in football, famed for goals and a 3-4-3 formation. They qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history in 2019 and made it out of the group in each of the last two seasons.
The two clubs did business last season when United signed Amad Diallo and United’s John Murtough, now the club’s football director, had to quarantine on his return from the city hit hard in the first wave of Covid.
Hopefully, United fans should be spared quarantine if they can travel to a first batch of away games in Europe since a trip to Bruges in February 2020 — though the fate of travelling fans is still to be decided by Uefa, with a decision expected within a week. Even if Uefa give the green light for travelling fans, individual countries may decide against them. There are currently no away fans in La Liga matches, where the capacities are limited to 30 per cent because of Covid.
The third team in United’s group are more familiar foes. Young Boys, from the Swiss capital Bern, qualified after beating Romanians Cluj and then Hungarians Ferencvaros 3-2 home and away in the Champions League play-off. They won the Swiss league by an astonishing 31 points last season, losing only two of their 36 games.
Young Boys haven’t started this season in the same form, winning one, drawing one and losing one of their three games so far under manager David Wagner, recently of Huddersfield Town and Schalke, where he was sacked a year ago after 18 games without a win. United overcame a very noisy home crowd before beating Young Boys home and away in 2018, en route to games against PSG and Barcelona in the knockout stages.
United need to impress more in the competition this season than last. The team haven’t gone beyond the last eight in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era and have become a second-tier European side, more effective in the Europa League which Jose Mourinho lifted in 2017 than the competition one of the three biggest clubs in world football really should be reaching the latter stages most seasons.
Solskjaer has a strong squad now. They must prove their worth by getting through this Champions League group.