United in the UEFA Champions League 2021/22

Meet me in Saint Petersburg

It’s fair to say that few people expected the 2021/22 season to start with full capacity allowed at games in England, but after watching almost the entire 2020/21 season behind closed doors (with the exception of the Europa League Final in Gdańsk) it’s been a much anticipated and welcome return. However, despite this being the case for much of the UK with Covid-19 vaccination take-up close to 90%, Europe’s progress is slower and the situation inconsistent across each country and league.

A strong 2nd placed finish meant United will compete in the 2021/22 Champions League but it’s still uncertain which of the group stage matches will even be feasible. A ban on any away fans across all European competition qualifiers this summer was potentially due to remain in place but thankfully lifted after the draw, meaning match attendance and ticket allocation will be determined on a case by case basis. In some countries like Germany there’s a cap on match attendances of 50% whilst in Spain rules dictate 40% attendance for season ticket holders and “local fans” which make an official away allocation sound unlikely. It makes planning travel to any matches a little tricky for now, but that’s the case for all international travel in this current climate.

The Draw

Regardless of these challenges the draw is always an exciting moment as the lower ranked teams compete in the qualifiers for a place in the group stages. With so many regular teams and cities in the draw, particularly for the Champions League, there’s more of a buzz in the chance of new opponents making it through. Some of the more interesting teams and locations this year included Ludogorets Razgrad (Bulgaria), Ferencváros (Hungary), Brøndby (Denmark) and Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) though the four of these all failed to make it through the play-odds, meanwhile a straightforward return to Glasgow was denied as Celtic and Rangers fell out at the second and third qualifying rounds respectively.

The stand out teams that did make it through to the group stages included Malmö FF (Sweden), Red Bull Salzburg (Austria) and Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova), the latter of which really appealed given United have never visited Moldova. Ahead of the draw, although we knew the matchday dates (below) there was due to be a delay in determining the fixtures (usually done on the same day) and at this stage we were still unsure about away fan attendance.

14th–15th September – matchday one
28th-29th September – matchday two
19th-20th October – matchday three
2nd-3rd November – matchday four
23rd-24th November – matchday five
7th-8th December – matchday six

Onto this season’s group stage opponents.

Villarreal – Villareal, Spain

Matchday five.

It was almost inevitable that we’d have a reunion with our Europa League final opponents, Villarreal. Winning last season’s final not only secured them a Champions League spot (after a 7th place finish in La Liga) but a spot in pot 1 too. Despite being our conquerers they were one of the more desirable top picks and we conveniently missed drawing one of the tougher pot 1 teams, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich or Inter. Whilst we’ve visited east cost neighbours Valencia a number of times since, it means a first trip back to Villarreal since 2008; our last few games against Spanish opposition have been played behind closed doors or on neutral grounds meaning the most recent game there was the quarter final defeat to Barcelona in 2019.

A common theme for the draw, for which the actual match days weren’t fully confirmed until a week later, was whether we’d even be able to attend. A trip to Villarreal should be a straightforward flight to Valencia (or even Madrid) with an onwards train up the coast however booking anything before allocations are confirmed is a risk. Spain is United’s most frequent European destination though, and for good reason, with fairly reasonable travel costs and options, great value drinks & cuisine and decent weather (even for a November game!)

Atalanta – Bergamo, Italy

Matchday four.

As the above tweet hints, Atalanta were our next opponents from pot 3; more difficult trips to St Petersburg or Donetsk were avoided, unfrtonately so were the sunnier destinations of Porto or Lisbon (Benfica). A good draw though in that it’s a new team and city to visit, with the Italians having recently played their way into the top four of Serie A and Champions League football. With Italy being second only to Spain in terms of most frequent opposition, Juventus our last actual match with those during the pandemic played with no fans present.

Bergamo, a small city in northern Italy, would usually be a bit of awkward place to get to, but step in Ryanair. For years their “Milan” airport (30+ miles west) is located in Bergamo, meaning a direct flight is a really easy and cheap option. Questions remain over the away allocation, but the pull of a brand new ground makes this one a stand-out tie this season.

Young Boys – Bern, Switzerland

Matchday one.

The Young Boys of Bern are a fairly familiar foe, one we faced in the 2018/19 season and overtaking Basel as the dominant Swiss team. Switzerland is never the most appealing trip, by all means it’s beautiful and a train ride to Bern via a flight to nearby Basel/Zurich/Geneva would be very picturesque, but with one of Europe’s highest costs of living it’s not a cheap place to visit. As things stand there’s still confusion on whether we’ll even have an away allocation (despite Switzerland being on the UK’s travel “green list”) due to confusion on whether our vaccination certificates will be valid. This is a sentence that would have meant nothing a few years ago, but our post-Brexit, COVID-19 world has us living new, stranger experiences each day.

Let’s hope we’ll be able to travel and watch the reds in at least one of this season’s group games, and with a comfortable enough set of opponents there’ll be further trips to look forward to in 2022.

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