Manchester United versus Bayer Leverkusen tonight isn’t only David Moyes’ first fully-fledged Champions League game (come on, a double-headed qualifier for Everton eight years ago doesn’t count); weirdly, the opposition coach is also managing in the Champions League for the first time. Sami Hyypia, the lanky Finnish albino and Liverpool fan favourite, is Leverkusen’s head coach. Hyypia’s only career red card came against United and the question for David Moyes is thus: how can he set up United to once again frustrate and foil the Finn, whose German team have made a brilliant start to the Bundesliga season?
After a routine win against Crystal Palace Moyes must opt for a buccaneering, attacking approach against Leverkusen. United play at the Theatre of Dreams, not the Theatre of Stick Giggs In There Just Cos and Let Cleverly Pass Another Ball Sideways. Moyes has to take control of a threatening looking group immediately, with a resurgent Real Sociedad and the ever-perilous Shakhtar Donetsk lying in wait. The second group game is away in the Ukraine and for the confidence of the side, Moyes needs to find a way to get a win under his belt immediately.
One of the core weaknesses of this Leverkusen side is the indiscipline of their Bosnian centre-back Emir Spahic. The foul-happy defender is a nightmare for his team when it comes to cards; last season, he incurred 10 yellows in 22 La Liga games for Sevilla. In the Spanish cup, 3 games, 2 yellows and 1 red. That is ludicrous. Even better, he has a tendency to dive into tackles all the time and hasn’t got much pace either; this is one of the only weaknesses in a dangerous Leverkusen side, considering they have the Bundesliga’s top scorer up front in Stefan Kießling and the brilliant young Lars Bender in midfield (if he recovers from a hip injury that is).
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Spahic can be embarrassed if United combine the tricky pace of Wilfried Zaha and the mysteriously underused Shinji Kagawa. It’s a big step of faith to start Zaha in such a high profile game but it could provide a huge confidence boost if he turns in a decent display. With his speed, dribbling abilities and willingness to run at defenders, Moyes should be instructing the youngster to regularly interchange with Kagawa and Rooney with Van Persie as the spearhead.
Kagawa’s continuing absence from a match day squad, let alone the first XI, is... Well. A joke. What the hell is going on there? Apparently he was suffering from ‘flu’ on Saturday. ‘Flu’. Maybe that’s true, but it’s more likely he’s been skinned, gutted and upholstered into a bespoke Japanese chair for Ed Woodward’s new office. Manchester United fans are a diverse bunch but one thing we all seem in agreement on is the need to give Shinji some game time before he turns into another Veron-esque flop. He’ll have played against a fair few of these Leverkusen players before during his time at Borussia Dortmund; with RvP, Rooney and Zaha all interchanging and making runs at the defence, the Japanese playmaker should have ample opportunities to thread the ball through into goalscoring positions. I would start him (if he’s recovered from the, ahem, ‘flu’) and hope that he demonstrates the talent which brought him to Old Trafford in the first place.
With the attacking quartet mentioned and the option of Nani on the bench to terrorise a tiring Leverkusen defence in the second half, all the signs are good for United to secure a home win. As long as David Moyes goes for the jugular, that is; I want to see Carrick and Fellaini in the centre of midfield and a restraining order against Cleverly so he can’t be within 500 yards of the stadium. Then, and only then, can United aim to set down an impressive early season marker.
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