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Raphael Varane has won the Champions League more often than Manchester United have. Which, given Europe’s importance to United’s identity, is an indication of the Frenchman’s success in his time at Real Madrid. It ought to mean few are more qualified to discuss what it takes the secure the club game’s most prestigious prize.
And, on the face of it, United scarcely look candidates. Languishing 10th in the Premier League, defeated in their last two top-flight games at Old Trafford and fortunate to only be beaten 4-3 by Bayern Munich in their Champions League opener this season, they have not reached the competition’s semi-final since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. They have only progressed to two quarter-finals in the subsequent 10 years: once under David Moyes, once with an almost surreal conclusion to a visit to Paris Saint-Germain under then caretaker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Neither their stuttering start to the season nor their decade of disappointment bodes well but Varane argued they can win the competition. “I think so, yes,” he said. And if he is compelled to talk up his team, a quadruple Champions League winner sounded more bullish than he needed to.
“It’s not the start of the season we expected but I still believe we have the quality enough to compete with the best teams in the world,” he said. “I think we have the quality in the squad to play and to win that competition.”
And if individuals’ credentials are examined, he may have a point. Varane is not even the most decorated member of the current United squad. Casemiro has five winner’s medals from his Real Madrid career. Mason Mount is proof a team does not have to start a season well to end it champions of Europe: Chelsea were ninth in England when Thomas Tuchel was appointed in January 2021 but he set up Kai Havertz’s final winner. Andre Onana’s last game for Internazionale was June’s final against City. Manager Erik ten Hag was a kick of the ball away from steering Ajax to the 2019 final. As Tottenham went through, Christian Eriksen instead played in it.
Perhaps, though, that illustrates the issue with United: they can be less than the sum of their parts. That has been the case so far, in part because some of those components are missing: United have actually won four of the six games in which Varane has featured this season and lost all three he has missed. Nearly all of their finest victories under Ten Hag have come with the Frenchman partnered with Lisandro Martinez, but now the Argentinian is out until December.
Varane argued a defence that has conceded 15 times in all competitions this season has not been the problem; that may flatter him and his colleagues, given that their statistics for shots against and xGA are those of a mid-table team. United scored three goals from four attempts on target in Munich but they have been profligate in the Premier League. Varane feels the key to success in Europe lies in being more clinical.
“I think that competition is about details, and you have to be efficient to win that competition,” he added. “In the last weeks, I think what we can improve is to be more efficient in front of the goals, with a very low number of occasions we concede goals. We need to create a lot to score, so that’s the reality of the top level. You have to be efficient to win big trophies.”
And United have not been efficient in the Premier League. They have seven goals from 109 shots this season. Marcus Rashford’s return of just one from 28 is an issue for the joint top scorer in last year’s Europa League, but he is not alone. Bruno Fernandes has two goals – one a penalty – from 20 shots, Casemiro, the top scorer in all competitions, one from 14, Alejandro Garnacho none from 10, Rasmus Hojlund none from seven, though he has also scored in Europe. Antony’s impending return may not help: the Brazilian has had 11 efforts, with only two on target and no goals.
Better finishing would help; but United’s general performance level is scarcely that of a side who look the best among the best in Europe. They have overcome few elite teams in months: not since Aston Villa in April, while their last major scalp was Newcastle in February’s Carabao Cup final. And as Varane knows from personal experience, conquering Europe involves beating some of the best: in his four successful campaigns, Real eliminated Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid three times each in the knockout stages, Juventus twice and Borussia Dortmund, Roma, Napoli, Manchester City and Liverpool once apiece.
Could this United do something similar? It feels unlikely but Varane has a formula for glory. “You have to take care of every detail, but we have a team with quality, with a good mentality and we have to make some improvements,” he said. But a lot of improvements are required.