The Premier League champions have drawn Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad in Group A.
David Moyes makes his first foray into the group stage of Europe’s elite competition, with his side to face Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad in Group A. But what can the Old Trafford side expect from these opponents?
There is no doubt that Shakhtar are the most daunting opponent in the pool. The Ukrainian side have been progressing in the tournament steadily over the last number of seasons, and put Chelsea out of the competition last season.
They may well have lost a number of key men in recent times including Willian, Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but they have bolstered their side with able replacements such as Wellington Nem, Bernard and Taison. There is a strong Brazilian contingent at the club, which makes them slightly unpredictable.
Arguably their best player and someone that United must pay close attention to is Douglas Costa. Despite Willian taking a lot of the limelight in Shakhtar’s rise to prominence in the Champions League, the 22-year-old is an immensely talented player capable of changing a game with his individual abilities.
The trip to Ukraine is an arduous one and will present United with a hostile and unwelcoming reception.
Bayer Leverkusen are first up for the English side, and although they certainly are not at the same level as domestic rivals Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, should not be underestimated. The strength of the Bundesliga has become evident with German sides excelling on the continent, and the BayArena side are one of the best in the country.
Leverkusen lost Andre Schurrle to Chelsea this summer, but still have a number of excellent players that could hurt United if given space and time. In Stefan Kiessling they have an out-and-out poacher, who has a consistent goalscoring record in his homeland and the eye for goal to decide a contest. Schurrle’s replacement, Heung Min-Son, impressed at Hamburg last term and will be a player that Premier League scouts will have come to know well. Germany international midfielder Lars Bender is the side’s talisman, and will prove a tough opponent for the likes of Tom Cleverley.
Sociedad are something of an unknown entity, as they enter the Champions League fray for the first time since 2003. They beat Valencia and Malaga to fourth place in La Liga last term and their collective team spirit and cauldron of a stadium will make it tough for United.
Xabi Prieto is an experienced and technically gifted central midfielder that many will not know, but has been unlucky not to have played for one of the bigger Spanish sides during his career.
In attack, Arsenal misfit Carlos Vela seems to have saved his career at the Spanish club and is more confident wearing the blue and white of Sociedad than he ever was in England. Sociedad’s most technically able player is certainly Antoine Griezmann, a winger-cum-forward with pace, trickery and an eye for goal. The Frenchman has been linked with a switch to Barcelona in the past and will need to be watched carefully.
Although United enter the group as overwhelming favourites, they should in no way underestimate three teams that on their day could beat Moyes’ men. The Old Trafford faithful will remember their ill-fated 2011-12 Champions League elimination at the hands of underdogs FC Basel, and as such the club should air on the side of caution in the group.
image: © Paolo Camera