Manchester United’s chances of winning the Champions League dramatically improved following UEFA’s redraw which saw them pitted against Atletico Madrid.
United had originally been paired with Paris Saint-Germain, the star-studded French side who are among the outright favourites in this season’s Champions League odds.
Atletico are no mugs, of course, but Ladbrokes had labelled United as 22/1 outsiders after being drawn against PSG, while their odds improved greatly to 16/1 after eventually landing Atletico in the last 16.
UEFA’s blunder – which they out down to a “technical problem” – left onlookers scratching their heads but in the end United fans will be pleased to have avoided Lionel Messi and co for now.
Although Atletico are reigning La Liga champions and have shown great pedigree in the Champions League in the past, particularly over two legs, the best betting apps make United 4/6 favourites to win the tie, with Atletico rated 11/10.
Former Manchester United striker Louis Saha, a Champions League winner with the Red Devils in 2007/98, is happy enough with the eventual outcome, although he was looking forward to another Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo battle after the original draw had been completed.
“To be fair, I was excited by that,” Saha told Bookmakers.co.uk. “I was about to go and sort my tickets for that but things changed and it was a shame to see those mistakes – but those guys will meet again, I’m pretty sure of that. Maybe in the next round.
“It’s a decent draw for United in the end, probably better than the one we had first time around. But in the Champions League knockout stages you won’t face any easy teams.
“You have to be very strong over both legs, that’s the only formula to win Champions League ties. You also have to be humble and accept that you won’t always have the ball against other top sides.
“You might have to win a scrappy game here or there too, and that’s going to be the challenge here.
“Man United have the tools, the players and the talent to beat Atletico and because it’s two or three months away they have some time to build momentum. Who knows what the team will be by then? There could even be some additions in January.”
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United Inspired By Chelsea?
United are in a similar situation to Chelsea last season, although the Old Trafford outfit have been more decisive than the Blues by sacking their underperforming manager much earlier in the season.
Bringing Thomas Tuchel in for Frank Lampard earlier this year has propelled Chelsea to a new level – the Champions League holders and Premier League title contenders – and Saha believes a similar scenario can play out at Od Trafford.
“With the type of players Manchester United have, yes I think they can win the Champions League,” he said.
“But they need to find the right form. In cup ties, you have to show up and be good on the day and the bigger the side you face, the stronger you have to be mentally. If you can do that, anything is possible.
“When you don’t have the right spirit or attitude, or you overthink things or don’t have the right tactics, you are in trouble.
“But you can find all that with a change of management. We saw Chelsea do it last season when they brought in a new manager and won the Champions League.
“It happens, and when things click – as it did with Chelsea – big things are possible.”
Rangnick is off to an unbeaten start in his interim role as United manager and Saha is satisfied with how things are progressing, without being blown away by the football they’re playing.
“I think he’s done a great job in finding a balance,” said Saha. “His way of communicating is great and he’s been like that his whole life he says, that concise way of talking.
“He’s willing to give everyone a chance. We saw him put out a lot of youngsters in the Champions League for example.
“He’s also improved the defensive side of United’s game which is always good for building confidence. It’s always important to start a new job with wins, but what he’ll look to do from here is install a bit of flair and style into the team.
“Man United fans are still waiting for that, but I think he’s done alright so far. It was never going to be an easy task, to come in to such a high-pressure job, so on that basis I think he’s doing OK.”
Next Permanent United Manager
Indeed, Saha wouldn’t be surprised to see the German remain in charge beyond next summer, although some bookmakers still make Mauricio Pochettino the favourite to be United manager next season with Rangnick due to move upstairs to the boardroom.
He said: “Results will tell. I think that’s the nature of the game. If you see players getting comfortable with him and results are going their way, then yes, you could see him staying in the position beyond the summer. If the results are right and they win a cup – maybe even the Champions League – then who knows.
“But I definitely think he’ll be a part of a long-term project. I don’t think the Premier League title is reachable this year, so it’s about building a strong squad, full of people committed to the club. That will be the most important thing.”
“The top four is still possible, a big run of wins can get United back in there. That would be a great way to recover the season.
“But even if United were to get to the Champions League semi-final or final, I think that would be a real boost and a sign of progress. A trophy and top four would be an ideal way to finish a difficult season.
“But the real target is to see a big improvement in the team and to get some consistency and the right attitude to win trophies.”
Cristiano Ronaldo is United’s top scorer by some distance having racked up 13 goals in 18 games this season, yet the veteran forward has been the subject of much debate due to his lack of involvement in games, except of course for his goals.
His lack of pressing when United are not in possession has been used to argue against the 36-year-old starting every game, but Saha does not see what all the fuss is about.
“I don’t really understand the question marks around Cristiano Ronaldo’s place in the team,” he said. “There are other players around the team who are not performing, why aren’t we talking about those guys being replaced?
“Cristiano should not be worried about his place because he’s scoring goals and saving the team, along with the goalkeeper. I think it’s the other players who should be worried about their place, not Cristiano.
“At 36, he’s still doing his magic, so I’m surprised people are questioning him. There’s too much focus on him. If he had only scored two or three goals, then yes I could understand the talk, but that’s not the case. I don’t think it’s fair.”
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Ronaldo The GOAT
Having played with Ronaldo at United between 2004 and 2008, Saha knows all too well how good the Portuguese legend is, but even back then the Frenchman could never have imagined his team-mate would go on to be one of the greatest of all time.
“You can’t always predict how good a player will become and you definitely can’t predict that a player will go on to break every record in sight,” he said.
“You could see that he was a bit special but I don’t think anyone could have imagined him winning so many Ballon d’Ors, winning so many trophies for club and country. I didn’t even think it was possible to score that amount of goals.
“I couldn’t possibly have predicted how good he would be when he was 19 or 20, but to still be doing it at the age of 36 and competing with the best players in the world – I could never have imaged that.”
So far, Ronaldo’s lack of pressing has not stopped Rangnick from picking the veteran, but with the January transfer window around the corner, the German could well have fresh plans in the New Year.
Saha, who joined United from Fulham in January 2004, admits it’s a more difficult window to do business in than the summer, but insists new signings can work out half-way through the season if it’s the right fit.
He said: “It’s a tough one because, if you’re looking at Champions League level players then they’ve probably already played in this season’s competition. But you have to be a world class player to come to Manchester United so you want them to be operating at that level.
“Sometimes a new player can be a magical addition. We’ve seen some great players make an unbelievable impact in January in the past, like Bruno Fernandes, and maybe we can find another transfer like that this January.
“I was actually a January transfer signing myself and football can throw up some unexpected things, but you have to be decisive.”