Manchester United are grouped with German champions Bayern Munich, Danish champions FC Copenhagen and Turkish champions Galatasaray in Group A of the Champions League following Thursday's draw in Monaco.
United have played all three opponents several times, with the 1999 final being the most famous encounter against Bayern. It's by no means the toughest of the eight groups, but United can expect febrile atmospheres in Munich, Copenhagen and Istanbul, three of the loudest venues in European football. United have played in all three and not won a single game in any of them, but it’ll at least make a change from Spain where United’s last four European away games took place.
A visit from United will mean all three opponents will be at their best, but it was always so. Veterans of the Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering sides will tell you that Galatasaray in 1993 was the loudest atmosphere they ever experienced as players. Copenhagen and Bayern boast some of the best organised, loud and influential supporters.
It’s difficult to say how good – or bad – this United side are. Are we looking at the team who went toe-to-toe with Spanish champions Barcelona and knocked them out of the Europa League only six months ago, earning lavish praise from Barca coach Xavi for being one of the best sides in the world? Or the side which meekly surrendered a 2-0 lead against mid-table Sevilla to lose 5-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals? The team which looked so comfortable in the League Cup final against Newcastle United in the same week as the Barcelona game, or the one which couldn’t win away against any of the Premier League’s top nine sides last season?
United may have won two from their opening three games in the Premier League, but fans are unconvinced. Wolves were easily the better side in the first game despite losing, Spurs won the second game and Forest were 2-0 up inside three minutes in the third at Old Trafford. United suffered early injuries to key players including Luke Shaw and Raphael Varane, not that the best players from last season have started this one well.
The mood at the club wasn’t made any lighter by the decision to not continue with Mason Greenwood, a divisive, emotive issue. That and the ongoing lack of clarity around a sale of the club or future investment under the Glazer family, for whom there is little love lost from fans. The transfer window closes on Friday with United scrambling to sign loan replacements for the injured and struggling to move on some of their highly renumerated players.
This team did well to reach the Champions League last season under Erik ten Hag and it would be considered a failure if United didn’t finish in the top two of Group A against two teams who’ve already played six matches just to reach this point.
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The games against serial Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich are the big ones. The two clubs share a mutual respect, the fans too, but while Bayern with new signing Harry Kane will be expected to reach the quarter-finals, as they have done in each of the three seasons since last winning the Champions League in 2020, what should we envisage from a United side that departed the Champions League so limply against Atletico Madrid in 2022, a group with RB Leipzig, Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir in 2020 or against Barcelona in 2019 or Sevilla in 2018? United haven’t won a big Champions League knock-out game since – somehow – PSG in 2019.
But first, Group A. Though he’s only played 65 minutes, former United player Wilfried Zaha now plays for Galatasaray, who won the Turkish League by eight points over neighbours Fenerbahce last term. As do fellow forwards, Mauro Icardi from Argentina and Belgian veteran Dries Mertins, 36. Hakim Ziyech, a star under Ten Hag at Ajax, joined on loan from Chelsea last week to bolster the Champions League effort.
Galatasaray this week eliminated Molde, the side formerly managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, to reach the group stage. A 3-2 triumph in Norway, with a winner in the 93rd minute, was followed by a 2-1 win in Istanbul, thanks to another 93rd minute goal. Icardi scored in both legs for the side managed by former player Okan Buruk.
The Turkish giants defeated Lithuanian team Zalgiris 3-2 on aggregate on the second qualifying round and then Slovenian champions Olimpija Ljubljana 4-0 over two legs in the third qualifying round.
United have history with Galatasaray. The famous games of 1993 where Eric Cantona clashed with police amid ‘Welcome to Hell’ signs on the way to strong favourites United being knocked out. The pair met a year later with a 0-0 draw in Turkey and a 4-0 win for United masking an awful group performance. They met again in 2012/13, when United won at home and had already qualified by the time of a 1-0 defeat on matchday six.
“Mr Ferguson,” asked a local journalist in English. “You left here in 1993 disappointed. And you leave here now disappointed. Has anything changed in 19 years?”
Had it been a British journalist, Ferguson may have snapped back. Instead, he smiled and said: “Well, we’ve won the competition twice.”
The put down raised some laughs, but Ferguson wasn’t finished.
“We’ve also reached the final twice. And we’ve qualified for the knock-out stages as group winners tonight.”
Ferguson smiled, stood up and left the room.
Copenhagen, where United’s new striker Rasmus Højlund, 20, started his professional career, are the Danish champions and reached the group stage after eliminating Polish champions Rakow Czestochowa 2-1 over two legs this week. In the previous round, they defeated Sparta Prague on penalties. A 0-0 draw against the Czech champions was followed by a 3-3 draw in Prague, then penalties. In the first round, the side managed by Jacob Neestrup, 35, defeated Icelandic champions Breiðablik 8-3 over two legs. The second leg saw Copenhagen score six times in 23 minutes. Neestrup took charge in September 2022 and helped the side retain the Danish title.
United last played Copenhagen in the quarter-finals of the 2020 Europa League, a match played behind closed doors in Cologne which United won 1-0 thanks to a penalty from Bruno Fernandes in extra time. The pair met in Champions League games in 2006/07, with the Danes 1-0 winners at home and 3-0 losers in Manchester. The best supported team in Denmark, with an average home crowd of 27,385 last season, Copenhagen play in the Parken Stadium, capacity 38,000. It will be full against United – they all will in this group stage – but which United will turn up to take them on?