Champions League preview: Man Utd back in their ‘natural habitat’

Victor Lindelof will partner Chris Smalling in United's defence tonight

Jose Mourinho
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho
(Image credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Manchester United play their first Champions League match in nearly two years tonight when they host Basel at Old Trafford.

Their last taste of European top-flight football was in December 2015, when they were beaten 3-2 by Wolfsburg in a group game that condemned the Red Devils to the Europa League.

Subsequently United failed to qualify for the Champions League in the following two seasons and they’re back in the competition not because of their domestic league form but because they won the Europa League in May.

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Their reward for winning Europe’s tier two tournament is a comparatively easy group containing Basel, Benfica and CSKA Moscow.

“Being back in the Champions League is going back to the natural habitat,” said Jose Mourinho, who will be looking to achieve with United what he did with Porto and Inter Milan and guide them to Champions League glory.

“Manchester United have been there season after season. For some players there’s the motivation of playing in it for the first time, so we look forward to the match and I hope also Old Trafford feels it in the same way we are feeling.”

They couldn’t have hoped for a gentler return than Basel. The Swiss side aren’t one of the European powerhouses at the best of times and they’ve started their domestic season sluggishly, their latest defeat a 2-1 home reverse to Lausanne at the weekend to leave them third in their league.

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United in contrast are top of the Premier League with Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Stoke City the only blemish in an otherwise flawless start to the season.

“We’re strong, playing well and have confidence in ourselves,” said Mourinho in the Guardian. “We have the quality to win.”

Stoke are the only side to have scored against United this season but there will be a new look back four for the visit of Basel with Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling in for the suspended Eric Bailly and Phil Jones.

The 22-year-old Lindelof has struggled to make an impression since arriving at Old Trafford from Benfica in the summer but Mourinho believes the young Swede will rise to the occasion this evening.

“I am more than confident and I know he is more than confident. He is a very good player with very good potential,” said Mourinho.

“I think it’s easier for him to play Champions League, it’s more comparable to the Portuguese style of football, to the football in the Portuguese League. There is more difference in relation to the Premier League.”

Describing his squad's motivation for the Champions League as “very high”, Mourinho nonetheless acknowledged that two years away from the tournament means that they don’t go into the competition as one of the favourites.

“In the Champions League there are four or five teams with an incredible level of quality, of experience, of know-how and that’s what makes the difference,” he said.

“We have to try to qualify, we have to try to go to the last-16 and enjoy that special knockout phase with the best teams in Europe.”

Celtic ready for PSG spectacle

Tonight’s other Champions League matches will see Paris Saint-Germain’s star-studded side travel to Glasgow to play Celtic.

Leigh Griffiths will be available for the Hoops and PSG will be able to call upon Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani.

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers told the BBC: “It should be a great spectacle. We’ve worked very hard all of last year in the league and then went through a really tough qualification phase and this is the competition that we wanted to be in.

“They’re put together, PSG, to win this competition. There’s no question about that - the quality that they have and what they’ve been building over the last few years.

“And then what they’ve done in terms of over the summer, bringing in Neymar and Mbappe, who is an amazing young striker.”

Allegri: Barcelona still one of the best

Barcelona face Juventus in a repeat of last year’s quarter-finals. Juve won the last-eight tie 3-0 on aggregate but boss Massimiliano Allegri still believes Barca are one of the strongest teams in the world, despite losing Neymar to PSG.

“Along with Real Madrid they are favourites to win the Champions League,” Allegri told the BBC. “They’ve lost Neymar and replaced him with a youngster in Ousmane Dembele - but they remain, along with Real, one of the two strongest teams in the world.”

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Tonight’s Champions League fixtures (7.45pm kick-offs)

Group A

  • Benfica vs. CSKA Moscow
  • Manchester United vs. FC Basel

Group B

  • Celtic vs. Paris Saint Germain
  • Bayern Munich vs. RSC Anderlecht

Group C

  • Chelsea vs. FK Qarabag
  • Roma vs. Atlético Madrid

Group D

  • Barcelona vs. Juventus
  • Olympiakos vs. Sporting Lisbon

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