Manchester United will look to make a good start to their latest UEFA Champions League campaign on Wednesday evening, as they welcome Turkish champions Galatasaray to Old Trafford.
It has been almost twenty years since the clubs last crossed paths, with Manchester United defeating Galatasaray 3-0 in the last meeting between the two sides on the 7th of December 1994.
The most famous encounter between the two clubs occurred a year earlier, in 1993, when United arrived in Turkey to a fiery reception for the second leg of a European Cup second round tie. Banners reading “Welcome to Hell” welcomed the reigning English champions, after a spectacular 3-3 draw in the first leg. The game ended 0-0, enough to knock United out, but the game is perhaps best remembered for the scenes after the match, in which several United players were injured by policeman who aggressively pushed the United players into the underground tunnel following the game.
It is an experience that remains with Ryan Giggs to this day, as he explained to ManUtd.com:
“I remember it vividly. It’s one of those memories that will always stick with you.
“When we arrived at the airport, there were all the banners and thousands of fans screaming at you.
“There were things thrown at us when we were driving away on the coach, fans outside the hotel chanting all night making sure we didn’t get any sleep and people phoning the hotel rooms. It had everything.
“But they were a good team and a good club. It is a fantastic game to be involved in, especially away from home. It is an atmosphere a lot of the lads won’t have witnessed before.
“The atmosphere back then was something I tried to enjoy as much as I could. The manager told us to go on the pitch and sample the atmosphere. The fans had been in the ground for hours and hours so it was buzzing 90 minutes before kick-off.
“We were stood in the middle of the pitch watching the fans chant. It was one stand to another. It was a brilliant atmosphere if I am honest but obviously the game didn’t pan out the way we wanted.
They were a good team then and they will be a good team now.”
The Turkish champions head into this game on the back of an undefeated start to the season, in which they have won three and drawn one league game, as well as winning the Turkish “Super Cup” defeating rivals Fenerbache 3-2.
Though the clubs are no strangers to each other, this current Galatasaray outfit is one United might know very little about. Former Bolton Wanderers striker Johan Elmander is currently plying his trade for the club, whilst Galtasaray is also home to former Arsenal full-back Emmanuel Eboue and former Juventus attacking midfielder Felipe Melo, meaning this is a side with no shortage of experience in some of Europe’s top leagues.
The club’s top scorer is currently Umut Bulut, who has gotten his campaign off to a flying start with 7 goals to his name already. New signing Burak Yilmaz also has 2 goals to his name this season, but boasts a terrific track record in Turkey. Having done the rounds at most of Turkey’s biggest clubs, including Besiktas and Fenerbache, before enjoying a terrific two year spell with Trabzonspor, where he scored a fantastic 55 league goals in 74 appearances.
Galtasaray have struggled defensively this season however, having conceded six goals in four league games, which may be a cause for concern given they will be facing attackers of the world-class calibre of Robin Van Persie.
Their defensive uncertainty however is shared by Manchester United, who have conceded five goals in four league games this season. A 4-0 win against Wigan, in which Sir Alex Ferguson rested a number of big names, including Van Persie, Shinji Kagawa and Antonio Valencia, will ensure the side is fresh and in high spirits for their first European encounter of the season.
United failed to qualify from their Champions League group last season, which was made all the more surprising given their group contained FC Basel and Otelul Galati as well as Benfica, and Sir Alex is keen to ensure that there is no repeat performance this time around:
“The only thing you can think about is qualifying. Manchester City are with Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Real Madrid and it’s going to be a tight group. It doesn’t mean to say City can’t get through as the other teams will be saying City are strong but the two who go through will deserve it.
“If we don’t go through, we will be criticised and pilloried for it and quite rightly. We’ve had our warning and I don’t anticipate going out this time.”
Last season was a stark reminder that participation in the arguably the greatest club competition in all of world football is something that should never be taken for granted, as United arguably did last season. If we need another reminder, we’ll get it on Sunday when we travel to Anfield (first and only pop at our relegation threatened foes today, I promise)!
In all seriousness though, last season was an unmitigated disaster on the continental front. Maybe United didn’t have the squad or the tactical versatility to push as far as they have recently, but United were certainly not, on paper at least, the third worst team in a group that contained Benfica, FC Basel and Otelul Galati. To finish third in that group, amongst teams who have a mere fraction of the resources that United do, was nothing short of embarrassing to a club that has been one of the best in Europe over the last five or so years.
United are generally good at reacting to disappointment however, even across seasons, and hopefully United’s response to last season’s disappointment will be in the same vein of the last time United failed to qualify for the knockout phases. After a poor campaign in 2005/06, in which United finished last in their group, United started to find their feet in Europe, going onto the semi finals where they were defeated by eventual champions AC Milan, and since have regularly featured late in the competition, with three finals appearances in four years, and a quarter-final berth in the other. With an even easier group this time around, there really can be no excuses for not progressing into the final 16, and doing so by finishing at the top of the table.
United have diversified their squad this season, and added even more firepower up front with the additions of Shinji Kagawa and Robin Van Persie, and those two additions might just hold the key to United’s continental ambitions. Kagawa in particular is something completely different to anything the United squad already had, and greatly enhances Sir Alex’s options tactically, an element which should truly come to the fore should United progress deep into the competition once more.
Team predictions always get a little tougher at this time of the season, with games coming thick and fast. Sir Alex promised his strongest side, but it’s just as likely he’ll play a “second string” side given United face a massive battle at Anfield on the weekend. With three days to recover and only a short trip to Liverpool to contend with, Sir Alex will probably stick to his promise for the most part, whilst also offering one or two players in need of the minutes some game time.
Nemanja Vidic’s substitution against Wigan would seem to indicate he will play against Galatasaray, whilst Jonny Evans could partner him in the middle to grant Rio Ferdinand a night off. Rafael is the only real option at right back, and whilst Alexander Buttner enjoyed a fantastic debut, Patrice Evra could regain his spot in the side should he recover from injury as Sir Alex expects him to.
David De Gea has had to watch from the stands for the last couple of weeks, as Anders Lindegaard has been given a run in the first team, but Sir Alex might offer the young Spaniard one last chance to stake his claim for the starting role at Anfield in this European encounter.
The shape United take in midfield and up front will most likely depend on whether or not Shinji Kagawa is involved. Despite claims he would be injured and unable to participate in the game against Wigan, Kagawa made the bench, indicating he was ready to play some part in the game, so he should be in good enough shape to play this game, and get some minutes under his belt before the game against Liverpool. Should Kagawa play, I’ll tip a return to the 4-2-3-1 shape that might become quite prominent in United’s Champions League run this season.
Antonio Valencia was rested at the weekend and could return to his usual berth on the right hand side, whilst Nani could be shifted to the left hand side, after a decent performance on the right at the weekend.
United certainly don’t lack options for the central striker role, even without Wayne Rooney. Robin Van Persie was rested for the majority of the game against Wigan, and should start, perhaps with a view to establishing a good lead before replacing him. Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck both had good games against Wigan, and are also worthy candidates for the positions.
Galatasaray will prove a tricky side, but a quick glance at the highlights from their games thus far this season would suggest that their defences are quite week, particularly in wide areas, which should provide good fodder for the likes of Valencia and Nani, should they play. Those defensive frailties have been exposed by some average teams already this season, but they have been rescued by the quality of their forwards every time thus far, much like United, meaning they still pose a credible threat.
Matches against Turkish opposition are usually interesting viewing, and I remember Besiktas defeating a makeshift United at Old Trafford only a few seasons ago. It is an ample reminder, as is the whole of last season’s terrible campaign in Europe, that no matter who you play in the Champions League, your worst enemy could well be yourself.