Patrice Evra, in typically candid fashion, revealed recently that Manchester United’s players found it easier to motivate themselves for European games than domestic ones which, given the upcoming UEFA Champions League match away to Bayern Munich, is just as well.
“In Europe we’ve played good, we’re confident and it looks like we’re all up for it, more than in the League and the English cups," confessed Evra, following his team’s 4-0 win over Newcastle United at the weekend. “I know it’s not professional to say that, but it’s the truth.”
Harsh as it may be to observe this, it’s difficult to imagine many -- if any -- players making the same admission under Sir Alex Ferguson, though Evra has always been particularly outspoken.
Manchester United will need every bit of bullishness that the France international has to offer, given that Bayern Munich have an away goal from the first leg and are widely expected to proceed to the semifinals. David Moyes’ men also look likely to benefit from the return of Wayne Rooney from injury, who along with Ryan Giggs has been training for this fixture.
Pep Guardiola, in his pre-match remarks, predicted that Manchester United would sit very deep and attempt to hit them on the counterattack -- much, in fact, as they had done at Old Trafford -- but there is an added urgency for Moyes, in that his team must score. Marouane Fellaini, Jonny Evans and Rafael have not travelled with the squad, presumably due to injury, and the greatest concern for Manchester United going into this tie is the absence of the Brazilian right-back.
The lack of his overlapping with Valencia on the right flank is a great loss, particularly since Bayern are so dangerous in that inside-left position. Meanwhile, the main tactical questions seem to be whether Moyes will start Shinji Kagawa and whether he will play either Giggs or Darren Fletcher from the beginning.
Kagawa was excellent against Newcastle, combining elegantly and effectively with Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata (who is ineligible for this tie but flying out with the team regardless) and his smart passing and energetic pressing would be useful in close quarters against this Bayern side. In games such as these, where the opposition will hold possession for long periods, it is more important than ever to pass out well from deep, easing the ball through the lines and taking pressure off the back four. Fletcher is particularly strong in this area, and with his impressive defensive credentials he may well get the nod over Giggs alongside Michael Carrick.
If Moyes is feeling truly brave, he will line up with a central midfield of either Fletcher and Giggs or Giggs and Carrick behind an attacking trio of Antonio Valencia, Danny Welbeck and Kagawa in support of Rooney. Welbeck’s role will be vital here as it was at Old Trafford; his aim should be to close down Philipp Lahm at the base of Bayern’s midfield wherever possible, much as he did to Xabi Alonso away to Real Madrid in last year’s UEFA Champions League.
While it is likely that Januzaj will begin on the bench, he should feature at some stage; perhaps, too, there should be room for Nani among the substitutes, given his fitful but decisive contributions at this level in previous years. The one challenge that Bayern Munich did not consistently face in the first leg was someone to run at them with pace and trickery, and so either Nani or Januzaj could usefully provide this option.
Moyes’ team might take faint solace from the absences of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez, but the German champions remain a formidable outfit and may introduce Mario Mandzukic from the start -- the player whose introduction made such a difference at Old Trafford.
Realistically, it will take at least one bold tactical move for Manchester United to win this tie. Battening down the hatches at Old Trafford was all very well -- indeed, it was probably the correct move -- but this leg presents a different hurdle altogether. Moyes has proven that he can provide conservatism against the game’s elite team but he must now show the gambler’s streak which separates football’s good managers from its great ones.
Rooney remains the most obvious threat but there must be a star performance from someone else in his supporting cast of attackers. As the cliché goes, Kagawa is due a big performance, and his time in the Bundesliga shows that he has the ability to deliver at this level. Wednesday evening would be as good a time as any to prove the wisdom of his transfer fee.