Club Focus – Manchester United – Youngsters struggle before key Premier League weekend

Looking back to the last time that Manchester United were on the wrong end of the score line at Old Trafford in the Champions League you have to go back as far as 2005. On the pitch that night was a 19-year-old Wayne Rooney and a 20-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo who carried the future hopes of the club on their backs. Both these players had experience of Champions League football – Ronaldo was involved in the competition for the second season for United and Rooney may have been in his debut season but he had already marked that with a fantastic hat-trick on both his Champions League and Manchester United debut. However, on that night neither player managed to force themselves and their personality on the game as they both struggled against the experienced Milanese back four.

Following on from this both players received criticism for their Champions League performances and lack of goals for at least the next season. Many people forget this having seen what both players have done over the last few years in Europe’s premier competition. Focusing on this, the youngsters who featured for United against Besiktas this week can take great heart from what those two players have achieved following a steep learning curve in the competition.

Many of the youngsters who featured for United on Wednesday night have already achieved at first team level with the occasional Premier League outing and most notably in the Carling Cup success last term, but turning this into Champions League success is another matter. The young United side had much of the possession against their Turkish opponents but did little to create any clear cut chances. Gabriel Obertan was arguably the outstanding performer whereas the likes of Federico Macheda and Danny Welbeck at times struggled to establish themselves on the game. Playing against any side in the Champions League is a huge test for young players as your opposition all have a winning mentality and understand the intricacies of consistently winning football matches and the pressure of playing at the top. United’s young starlets may have struggled to impose themselves on this encounter but they will have learnt a great deal about themselves and what they need to do to really make it at this level.

The 23 match unbeaten home record was a great statistic and shows how dominant United have been for the last few years in the Champions League but in truth this season it has never looked in good shape. A stuttering win against Wolfsburg preceded the last gasp draw against CSKA – much more can be read into these results than the Besiktas encounter. United have looked vulnerable at Old Trafford in this campaign even when they are at full strength and this is something that needs to be improved greatly come the next stage.

United’s Premier League form, however, seems to be improving at the right time of the season and they will be hoping for maximum points from the trip to Portsmouth this weekend. A similar side to the one which put Everton to the sword will be welcomed back but it is with the opposition where the uncertainty may lie. Following the loss of their manager this week former Chelsea boss Avram Grant has taken over the reins. This may prove dangerous due to the lift often associated with a new manager and players trying to impress the new boss to cement a place in the first team. United will have to be focused on the job in hand with memories of Alan Curbishly taking over a struggling West Ham side lying in the bottom three but still taking all three points in his first game at home to Manchester United on their minds. United can ill afford a similar outcome as another defeat at this stage would be disastrous.

Fratton Park has not been a happy hunting ground for the Red Devils since Pompey secured their top flight status, but with the club languishing at the foot of the table it would be a huge upset if there were anything other than three points gained by the champions even if they will be without Sir Alex Ferguson who serves the first match of his touchline ban. With closest rivals Chelsea and Arsenal facing each other a full 24 hours after United’s match, this game provides United with an ideal opportunity to close the gap on Chelsea and extend their lead over Arsenal, thus increasing the pressure on both sides before the Emirates encounter. If this match goes the right way the biggest winner come the end of the weekend could well be Manchester United.

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