For the first time in 4 years United made it to the knockout stages of the Champions League, with 5 wins from 6 in a relatively straightforward group. Changes to the group seeding in recent years meant that finishing top still left us open to drawing a strong 2nd placed team, including Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus. Thankfully though we were paired with a new opponent and a trip to Seville.
Swiss Frankly Expensive.
The European season has been an enjoyable one for United this year; back in the Champions League again with 4 wins from 4 and 10 goals along the way. With us all but qualified for the knockout round a trip to Switzerland was almost a formality as we looked to secure top spot in the group, even if there were likely to be European giants waiting for us.
As reigning Portuguese champions, Benfica were an ideal pick from the top seeds in the group draw back in August. One of two teams in Lisbon and the country’s most successful, United have frequently faced them, most recently in 2011 as well as the victorious European Cup final against Eusébio and co. in 1968. Portugal is actual United’s 5th most visited country but until now it was one that had eluded me.
Check in Kiev
The last few months of European football have been full of both elation and realisation for United; Europa League glory in May followed by a stark reminder of the quality of teams we’ll have to face this season after the Super Cup final against Madrid. Fast forward to next May and it’s the final in Kiev, Ukraine.
It was with a bit of a whimper that the 2015/16 European season ended against Liverpool, a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford not enough to turn around the defeat at Anfield. After being knocked down into the Europa League I’d come round to idea of a potential final in Basel, Switzerland, but it was not to be. Even more frustrating was that our conquerors were drawn to play Borussia Dortmund, a place I’ve longed to visit with United at their impressive Westfalenstadion.
That’s all Volks.
Within the mix of trips to places of cultural interest, European football also throws up some more industrial locations, none more so than Wolfsburg. A city in the north of Germany with a population of around 125,000 – just over half the size of Warrington – Wolfsburg is most famous for being the location of the Volkswagen HQ and factory, with the football team originally established for the VW workers; if that wasn’t enough culture it’s also twinned with the town of Luton. United’s only previous trip to Wolfsburg was in 2009, a dead rubber game famous for a Michael Owen hattrick. Unfortunately, due to a number of mediocre performances in the previous 5 group games only a win in Germany would guarantee progress to the knock out rounds.
From Russia, With Luck.
After events in Bruges meant I had to skip United’s first 2015 group game in Eindhoven I was determined to attend the next match, even if that meant negotiating the complexities involved in visiting Russia. The trip to Moscow would be the longest distance I’ve travelled to see United play; whilst the direct route over the Baltic sea is 1,602 miles, making it shorter than previous flights to Donetsk (1,768 m), Istanbul (1,698 m) and Athens (1,640 m), my flight was via Munich which brought the total to 1,911 miles. Before any of this could happen however, I had to attempt to get across the border of the world’s largest nation.
In Bruges: Tripping Around.
Every Euro away trip has it’s own unique story, usually one small incident that defines the trip or makes it memorable. Whether it’s the formation of a new chant in a bar, a run in with over zealous police or a lost pair of trainers, we’ve seen a mix of them all. Unfortunately the trip over to Bruges will be ‘that trip’ where my dad, my regular travel partner, went head first down a flight of stairs, smashing a fair few bones and leaving his spleen behind. Not quite what we make these trips abroad for, certainly not what I’d like to be writing about, but as of this being published he’s out of hospital in Belgium (after a 2 week extended stay) and recovering well at home.