Five months ago, Monday 17th December, United had just lost 3-1 away at Liverpool leaving them 19 points off the top of the league and 11 points from the top 4. With a goal difference of 0 and PSG to come in the Champions League there was little expectation that anything would be salvaged from the season. This was a view a shared by the board, as Mourinho’s sacking was announced a day later.
Following the late drama in Paris we were into the quarter final draw of the Champions League. It’s the real business end of the tournament; with it comes the big names, and they don’t come much bigger than Barcelona. Although domestic rivals Real Madrid have won the trophy for the past three seasons, Barcelona added their fifth title in 2015, having also defeated United in the ’09 and ’11 finals.
There’s often talk about the ‘romance’ of football, whether it’s an underdog turning over a giant in a cup game or simply remembering elements of a club’s history – such as Ole’s return to United and back to attractive, attacking football! What better then, than a trip to Paris, a city synonymous with romance and a chance to show what we’re about against the superstars of Paris Saint-Germain.
A December game in Spain is always welcome; sat in the sun and 20 degrees certainly beats the sub-zero conditions of Ukraine or Denmark at this time of year. Our final group game in this seasons Champions League would be at Valencia, Spain’s third largest city and United’s third most faced team from the country too. Our last trip there was for the 2010 group stage match, one of my earlier trips, memorable for a last minute winner from Hernandez whilst a young Juan Mata lined up against us.
Growing up watching United in the 90’s has always meant that Italy holds a certain prestige for me. From highlights on Football Italia to European matches against the big Italian teams; Inter & AC Milan, Fiorentina and the opponent we used to face so regularly, Juventus. Whilst we haven’t visited Turin for over 15 years they’re certainly still top dogs in Italy, with a record 34 domestic league titles, including the last 7 in a row, and appearances in 2 of the last 4 European cup finals.
The city of Madrid is synonymous with the European Cup & Champions League; Real have won it a record 13 times (including the last 3 and first 5 in the late 50’s) whilst Atletico have been runners up 3 times, the two clubs have also faced each other in 2 of the last 5 finals (as well as this season’s Super Cup). This year the match will be hosted at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, which has been home to Atletico Madrid since 2017.
The 2017/18 season saw United receive almost £150m in prize and television money. Their 2016/17 accounts show that gate and match day income was £107m, whilst there was a £49m profit after all turnover and costs. There’s more money in football than ever, and the fact that the television deals are more valuable to clubs than tickets shows that there’s room for clubs to consider fans and the rising costs we’re faced with.
Now that the dust has settled on another European season it’s time for me to reflect on this year’s travels in the Champions League. Unlike the previous 2 seasons it was spent solely in the top tier of European football, and the for the first time in 4 years we made it to the knock out rounds. In United’s continued period of transition it represented progress, even if it was ultimately uninspiring, ending with the defeat at Old Trafford to Sevilla.
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.
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.