Manchester United face Belgian hurdle in Champions League

Manchester United rekindle their Champions League love affair on Tuesday when they welcome modest Belgian side Club Brugge to Old Trafford for the home leg of their play-off round tie.

AFP| Last Updated: Aug 18, 2015, 09:24 AM IST
Manchester United face Belgian hurdle in Champions League

Manchester: Manchester United rekindle their Champions League love affair on Tuesday when they welcome modest Belgian side Club Brugge to Old Trafford for the home leg of their play-off round tie.

The first English team both to compete in the European Cup and win it, United have long had a special association with the competition, reinforced by the knowledge that it was in pursuit of continental glory that eight of their players and three club officials perished in the Munich air disaster of 1958.

Last season was United`s first without Champions League football in 19 years, but they have been led to the brink of the group phase by Louis van Gaal, who won the tournament with a brilliant, young Ajax team in 1995 and led Bayern Munich to the final in 2010.

Van Gaal has not sampled the competition since 2011, but with United having opened the season by beating first Tottenham Hotspur and then Aston Villa by a goal to nil, he is confident of making a winning return.

"Of course you miss that (playing in the Champions League), because as a manager you can show yourself at the highest podium against other clubs at a high level," said the Dutchman.

"I think in England the rhythm is the highest in Europe and a lot of European clubs are not used to that rhythm. I hope that advantage is good enough to beat Club Brugge."

It is a year and four months since United last played in the Champions League, losing to Bayern in the quarter-finals in April 2014, and it says much about the profound change the club has undergone since then that only four of the players who played in the 3-1 second-leg defeat in Munich are likely to line up against Club Brugge.

Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck have left the club, while David Moyes is no longer in the dug-out, having been sacked 13 days later.

Of those who made it onto the pitch against Bayern that remain, Phil Jones is currently sidelined with thrombosis, Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez are out of favour and goalkeeper David de Gea has been removed from the team after becoming unsettled by Real Madrid`s interest.That leaves Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling, Michael Carrick and Adnan Januzaj, a late substitute at the Allianz Arena, who came in from the cold to score the winner at Villa Park last Friday after disappearing from view in Van Gaal`s first season.

Januzaj will hope to start after settling the match against Villa, while captain Rooney is in need of a strong performance after a sluggish start to the campaign that has seen his place in the side called into question.

While United contested three Champions League finals between 2008 and 2011, winning one, Club Brugge are the only Belgian team to have reached the final, losing 1-0 to Liverpool at Wembley in 1978.

Michel Preud`homme`s side finished top of the table in Belgium last season, but lost out to Gent in the ensuing championship play-off.

For former Belgium striker Tom De Sutter, the tie against United, which concludes on August 26, will serve as a swansong prior to his departure for Turkish side Bursaspor.

Club Brugge, who last played in the group phase in 2005, have made a modest start to the season, winning twice, drawing once and losing once, but Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez, who began his career under Van Gaal at Barcelona, believes his side can spring a surprise.

"We are the smaller team, but they have to be worried," said Vazquez, whose side beat Panathinaikos 4-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round.

"We are playing with confidence and we can be dangerous tomorrow (Tuesday)."

United and Club Brugge have never previously met and the Belgian side have an unenviable record on English soil, having failed to win on all 11 of their previous visits.