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.
The 2017/18 UEFA Champions League has been in full swing, or at least partial, for almost two months. The first qualifying round started at the end of June where 54 countries were represented. Ahead of this weeks draw it was down to just 32 teams from 16 countries, including APOEL of Cyprus, Maribor of Slovenia and Qarabağ of Azerbaijan – all potential new countries for me with United, even if some present a bit of a logistical nightmare.
Seeded in the 2nd pot (and only just, given our recent decline in UEFA club coefficient) we knew we’d face one of the top seeds, the league winners of the top eight nations; Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, France, Russia, Ukraine (and England). Some of these teams we’ve faced in recent years; Madrid, Munich and Shakhtar Donetsk, whilst older foes like Juventus joined them. The make up of pots 3 & 4 was more interesting, a wider range of countries and trips outside of Europe’s main capitals – Leipzig, close to Berlin, another that looked attractive for a new team and destination.
As we often experience with these types of draws, if there’s an opportunity to drag it out then the suits will ensure we’re kept waiting. So between drawing each pot there was the slightly tedious announcements of the previous season’s best players in Europe, unsurprisingly largely made up of Madrid players. Honoured guest Totti and Ukraine ambassador Shevchenko drew the balls to decide the groups, before keeping us waiting over 90 minutes for the all important fixture dates. Where are we going then?
S.L. Benfica – Lisbon, Portugal
Benfica were one of my top picks having not visited Portugal with United on any of our recent trips there; Braga was the most recent visit in 2012 and Benfica the season before, both at the group stage. They’re also a team engrained in our history, the opponents of our 1968 European Cup victory at Wembley – 50 years ago this season! Portuguese teams are our 5th most faced, but this will be my first visit and 19th country with United.
With flight options loaded up for each of the 6 fixtures, getting to Lisbon looked fairly straightforward with plenty of direct flights from Manchester. These ranged (minutes after the draw was completed) from around £110 for the early dates and as cheap as £50 return closer to Christmas. Thanks to the match days being spread across Tuesday & Wednesday nights and no immediate awareness of the actual fixtures dates it became a bit of a waiting game, but finally we were able to book flights for £125 return for a 4 day trip mid-October. Hopefully we’ll just get the end of the warm weather there, perfect for a few days on the Super Bock.
FC Basel – Basel, Switzerland
Another new country for me by the time we visit Switzerland in November, and Basel again familiar opponents having knocked us out of the groups stage of the competition in 2011. Our game here falls towards the end of the group stage in the middle of November, meaning it’s going to be a bit chillier and very different from sitting out in the Lisbon sun – there aren’t many more picturesque places than Switzerland though, especially in winter. The price of pints might be closer to Scandinavian levels though.
Despite being a very small city, Basel actually borders both France and Germany, making it a slightly easier place to reach. There were possibly good connecting options from either of these two countries, but for ease of travel we opted for a direct flight. Looking at the 6 potential match dates there were options ranging from £90-160. We booked this as quickly as we could and actually ended up with a flight via London with British Airways for £167. I don’t think I’ve every actually flown BA and definitely never done an internal flight in the UK; a couple more trivial travel feats to check off.
CSKA Moscow – Moscow, Russia
This year CSKA is looking like the group game that I’ll skip. I travelled to Moscow for our last game in 2015 and, whilst the Eastern European matches are usually a good trip, it’s not the easiest place to travel to. It cost the best part of £100 to obtain a visa 2 years ago; there’s just over a month to the game so it’s not an impossible task, but flights with a decent transfer were upwards of £260. A future trip to Russia will hopefully crop up, ideally in the more idyllic Saint Petersburg.
In an interesting turn of events, the fixture computer placed Liverpool there (to play Spartak) the same week United visit. Whilst I can’t imagine more than a few hundred fans of each club will travel from the UK, it should still be interesting to see how they all fare at Red Square.
In the days after the draw I’ve kept an eye on the flights and there actually hasn’t been much change, at least price wise. The options do however become a little more complicated, with extra and longer transfers. I’m pretty pleased with what we’ve booked for Lisbon and Basel, both should be great trips to new places. The quality of teams in our group is also promising, we’ve got a really good chance of qualifying for the knockout rounds after Christmas and challenging the top teams in Europe. It’s probably a bit too early to think about making the final in Kiev but after a solid start it’s safe to think this team will have a strong season. Come on you reds!