LONDON, August 25 – With the Champions League group phase beckoning in Wednesday’s play-off round second leg against Club Brugge in Belgium, Manchester United’s problems in front of goal remain a source of concern.
Though strong favourites to book a spot in the group stage after a first season out of the competition in 19 years following last week’s 3-1 win in the first leg, United’s lack of cutting edge at the sharp end of the pitch was highlighted anew in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Newcastle United.
Louis van Gaal’s side have scored only twice in their three league games to date and while one of those was an own goal by Tottenham Hotspur’s Kyle Walker, the other was a deflected shot by Adnan Januzaj against Aston Villa.
Captain Wayne Rooney has come to symbolise United’s problems in the opposition penalty area, having gone 10 club games without finding the net, but team-mate Chris Smalling believes there are no issues with the England striker’s confidence.
“I think if you see in his play, he is running in behind and he is giving himself opportunities,” Smalling said.
“I think we probably had double figures in terms of chances (against Newcastle), not just to Wayne but for the whole team.
“It’s just a case of one of those falling in, but the majority of the team is getting those opportunities so if we keep creating those chances, they will come eventually.”
The only real attacking spark United have shown this season came in the first leg against Club Brugge, when Memphis Depay scored his first two goals in the club’s colours and set up an injury-time header for Marouane Fellaini that significantly altered the complexion of the return leg in Bruges.
But Depay could not replicate that display against Newcastle, prompting Van Gaal to remark drily that his performance against Club Brugge may have given the 21-year-old “too much” confidence.
Depay is nonetheless expected to keep his place in the team at the sold-out Jan Breydel Stadium, while Van Gaal must decide whether to keep faith with Bastian Schweinsteiger, who made his full debut against Newcastle but faded badly.
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Club Brugge head coach Michel Preud’homme can only envy the selection dilemmas facing Van Gaal as he attempts to forge a team from a squad that has been ravaged by injury.
Experienced captain Timmy Simons will miss out after injuring his thigh at Old Trafford, joining Thomas Meunier, Jose Izquierdo, Felipe Gedoz, Sander Coppman, Stefano Denswil and Lior Refaelov on the sidelines.
Centre-back Brandon Mechele is suspended after being sent off for two bookable offences in the first leg, while striker Tom De Sutter, who has agreed to join Bursaspor, is a slight doubt after sitting out the 2-0 loss to Zulte-Waregem at the weekend through illness.
Speaking after the first leg, Preud’homme gave his side only a “small chance” of reaching the group phase for the first time since 2005.
But his team have already engineered one spectacular turnaround in this season’s Champions League, rallying to beat Panathinaikos 3-0 in the third qualifying round after a 2-1 defeat in the first leg.
And they can also take solace from historical omens.
Club Brugge are unbeaten in their last 10 European home games and have lost only once in nine home games against English clubs, while United have lost on their last two visits to Belgium.
“I’m disappointed (by the first-leg result), that’s clear, as we held on to a great first-leg result for so long,” said Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez, whose early
free-kick in Manchester yielded the Michael Carrick own goal that put the visitors in front.
“That final goal really makes it hard on us, however. But you never know in football.
“If we manage to score an early goal in Bruges, and our 12th man (the supporters) starts backing us 100 percent, we can go anywhere.”