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The Champions League draw won’t have set the pulses racing of Manchester United’s European away-dayers, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players should have taken satisfaction from the way the balls fell for them in Istanbul.
Trips to Bern, Bergamo and Villarreal aren’t among the more exotic locations on the European calendar and United have been to the former just three years ago and the latter twice since 2005, as well as meeting them on neutral turf in disappointing circumstances back in May.
Bergamo will be new territory and Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta are probably Europe’s great entertainers, but how accessible any of these trips will be remains to be seen.
What should be accessible is the last-16 as group winners. Having been placed in pot two United could have been handed a group of death, or danger at the very least. Instead, they were placed in Group F, which might not stand for free passage but neither should be as futile and frustrating as last season.
Atalanta have finished third three years in a row in Serie A but Italian clubs have struggled to leave a mark on European competition recently. Villarreal are competent under Unai Emery, as United discovered in Gdansk, but Solskjaer’s side should still be kicking themselves for not winning the Europa League trophy and the Spaniards came seventh in the weakest La Liga for years. Young Boys should be the whipping boys.
United might still be licking their wounds from their calamitous collapse in last year’s group stage but they are a wiser and stronger team now and anything but top spot in this group will be a failure. A year ago they beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 in Paris and RB Leipzig 5-0 at Old Trafford on matchday one and two but still contrived to finish third. A repeat seems unlikely.
The signings of Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane have added quality to this side during the summer and in Varane they have a four-times Champions League winner by the age of 28, a remarkable record and a pedigree that can only help in Solskjaer’s side.
The ambitions at United this season might be focused on the Premier League and going toe-to-toe with whoever emerges as the most credible challengers from Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool, although Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Southampton has already highlighted how demanding the domestic campaign is going to be.
Europe can certainly be more than a distraction, however. United have reached two Champions League quarter-finals in a decade and have been resoundingly beaten in both, by Barcelona in 2019 and Bayern Munich in 2014. Going one better than that this season looks like a reasonable aim.
Winning the group should provide United with a more amenable last-16 draw and after that all they need is a little luck of the draw and progress should be achievable. If the balls continue to fall for English clubs then the Champions League might actually prove easier to win than the Premier League.
United, City, Chelsea and Liverpool is shaping up to be a strong four-way battle for the title, but that quartet are also amongst the first six in the betting to win the Champions League. PSG are obvious favourites after signing Lionel Messi but after that it’s the four English clubs and Bayern Munich in the top half-dozen.
Italian clubs have struggled in Europe recently and champions Inter Milan have had to sell two of their best players this summer, in Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku. Juventus could yet sanction the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.
The problems facing Real Madrid and Barcelona have been well documented. Barca look unlikely to trouble the last four without Messi.
So there’s reason to believe at least one Premier League club will be back in Istanbul in May. After the draw they were handed on Thursday United should be aiming to improve on their Champions League record for the last decade at least.
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