United in the UEFA Champions League 2018/19

2018-19 champions league group

Hala Madrid

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.

United’s 2017/18 European campaign wasn’t much of a success, limping out in the first knock-out round against Sevilla, and few highlights to choose from the other games. For the 2018/19 season to be considered a success we have to progress to the latter stages of the competition, even if a trip to Madrid for the final is a little bit far-fetched right now.

The Draw

Like last season United were placed in pot 2, with the potential to draw any of the top ranked teams; pot 1 included three Spanish teams, Barcelona and the two from Madrid, as the champions of the top six associations took a spot as well as the winners of both European competitions – a luxury United missed out on last season despite being Europa League winners.

This year saw a much smaller qualifying round, with only 6 teams reaching the group stage from the play-offs, compared to 10 in 2017/18. This meant there were much fewer leagues represented in the 32 that made it to the group stages (15 compared to 17 the previous year) and so the obscurer teams, and only countries I was still to visit, were Red Star Belgrade (Crvena Zvezda) of Serbia and Viktoria Plzeň of Czech Republic. Typically, United avoided both of these.

Young Boys – Bern, Switzerland

The first fixture drawn was a new opposition in Young Boys of Bern, with the match being played in a few weeks time mid-September. Last season’s trip to Basel was our third to Switzerland, though they’re the only Swiss team we’ve faced to date; this meant a trip to the capital would be a new one for all United fans. Bern, it turns out, isn’t the easiest place to reach direct, not from Manchester anyway, with the best flight options to the nearby cities of Geneva, Zurich or Basel followed by a local train. With annual leave only really allowing 2 trips before Christmas, and Switzerland being one of the pricier places we’ve visited in the past, I didn’t fancy the Young Boys this time round.

Juventus – Turin, Italy

Our top seed pick for this season came in the form of an old European rival, and a place we’ve not visited in over 15 years. Juventus, of Turin, would be some opponents, with 7 consecutive league titles under their belt and the recent addition of Cristiano Ronaldo. Italy is the second most frequent country United have played in, but our last trip there was to Milan in 2010, making this tie even more attractive.

The easiest and cheapest option here was a flight to either of the nearby Milan airports, followed by an hour or so train journey. Flights were available from Manchester, but a short trip over to Liverpool brought the price down to just £57 return – easily under £100 total travel costs even with the extra legs either side. With a match ticket in the bag following the swift application process, this looked like the game that most reds were interested in, and with good reason.

Valencia CF – Valencia, Spain

Lastly, another regular foe and destination in Valencia. Unfortunately there’d be less Spanish sun for this one, with our game set for early December, but Valencia and the east coast of Spain is still an amazing place to visit and 17 degrees for our stay. Our last trip there in 2011 was brilliant, helped by the September heat and the heights of the fantastic Mestalla stadium.

Another fairly easy destination to reach directly, as well as with options via Alicante and Barcelona either way along the coast, or a inland from Madrid. Our scenic choice of route was to be the latter, a flight into Madrid followed by a train onto Valencia, similar to the last few trips to Spain – one of the best ways to travel! At just £34 for the return flights and around €50 for the train it already looks like a real bargain trip.

Summary

Although we didn’t get the new countries I’d hoped for, and with little chance of either Red Star Belgrade or Viktoria Plzeň making it through their groups, this season will be about revisiting familiar countries and cities. Turin will be a brand new place to explore, as Bern would have been, whilst Valencia brings good memories from one of my first trips. In terms of the level of opposition, United proved last season that there’s are no easy games, with struggles on the road in the group stages and then being knocked out at the next hurdle by Sevilla, who we really should have done better against. Hopefully there are a few more trips to come after the group stages this season, we might be some way off making the final, but reaching the latter stages should be a priority for Jose.

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