While many people’s attention turns towards the names of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, few people readily accept that Manchester United can lift this season’s trophy.
However, the Champions League is a knockout competition and not a popularity contest. Just because Jose Mourinho’s side are perceived as playing an unattractive game does not mean they should be easily discounted.
Having won five of their six games in the group stages, there’s little doubt Manchester United deserve their place in this competition although it’s commonly felt that this year is too soon for them to go all the way.
Despite the excessive amounts of money spent on bringing top players to the club, there still remains an element of the team being a work in progress.
José Mourinho himself has helped to dampen expectations by repeatedly stating he feels his current side are not ready but this smells of a smokescreen deployed to ease the pressure on his players.
Not made like they used to be
A common complaint aimed at the current Manchester United side is that they aren’t of the style which is associated with their heritage. This may be true but it ignores the fact that in their current guise, they are metronomically efficient when it matters.
United may have recorded less possession and fewer shots (on and off target) against Huddersfield in their recent FA Cup victory, however, there was little doubting that they had the quality needed to dispatch the Terriers throughout that game.
For all the plaudits Liverpool and Tottenham have received for their rapid development and attractive, attacking style this season, Manchester United remain ahead of them in the league whilst also boasting a better goal difference.
They have also progressed effortlessly into the quarter-final stage of the FA Cup ahead of both rivals and qualified from the Champion’s League group stages with relative ease.
One of the oldest adages in football is that, come the end of the season, the table doesn’t lie. It may not be the end of the season yet. However, early indications are that Jose Mourinho's team are actually doing pretty well so far.
Strength in depth
For any team that makes it through to the latter stages of the competition, injuries and suspensions can play a major role. Manchester United have a strength in depth that few teams can compete with.
Last season, Mourinho expertly guided his team to victory in the Europa League despite suffering several key injuries and having an almost overwhelming schedule of games to navigate.
Since then, Mourinho has brought in four major signings with only Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Wayne Rooney making a departure from the dressing room.
This large pool of players will provide a healthy competition within the squad to push individuals to the top of their game.
The large squad size also provides Mourinho plenty of options to tailor his gameplan according to the opposition, something which was seen at the end of last season when his starting formation regularly changed from one game to the next.
To be successful at the end of a season, Manchester United will need star players to carry them to glory.
The importance of a goalkeeper may be under-valued in the modern game but a good keeper’s presence is of critical importance. Manchester United have one of the best in the game with David de Gea.
As a player who won three consecutive fans player of the year awards before Ander Herrera pipped him to the accolade last season, de Gea’s quality is also backed up with consistency.
The Spanish stopper has kept more clean sheets than any other keeper in Europe’s top-five leagues this season, saving over 82% of the shots he’s faced in all competitions.
Amongst the many fine performances he’s contributed this season, the draw at Anfield and the 3-1 win over Arsenal in which he matched the league record of 14 saves in a game are particularly notable.
The arrival of Alexis Sánchez was heralded as the type of player Manchester United need to unlock big games but they actually have a wealth of match-winners within their squad.
Romelu Lukaku has 21 goals in all competitions this year while Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford all have 10 or more to their names. Each of them is more than capable of producing a moment which can define a game, as are Juan Mata and Paul Pogba irrespective of the latter's current dip in form.
While the mix of youth and experience within this squad may not exude the confident mentality that comes with past glories at the highest level of the game, there can be little doubting the hunger in the team to achieve this level.
The fact that this is a team currently on an upward trajectory also makes it hard to judge now exactly what they’re capable of in the future. It also means that they will achieve more than they’ve already accomplished.
Love him or loathe him, you can’t get away from the fact that Mourinho knows how to deliver silverware.
His Marmite personality has always been evident yet when Chelsea collapsed during the 2015/16 season, the voracity with which people celebrated Mourinho’s downfall speaks volumes.
Since then it has almost become fashionable to back these premature assertions of him being a spent force, something which is clouding the way in which Manchester United’s chances are being viewed.
But this is the way that Mourinho likes to operate. He has always preferred to be the underdog and this is where he excels.
Both previous Champions League titles won by Mourinho teams came with unfancied sides at Porto and Inter Milan. This too is how things look to be shaping up this season at Manchester United.
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