The UEFA Champions League is back with the thrills on midweek nights throughout the 2023/24 season. The atmosphere is different when these big European nights come around as the best and most successful make their case for Champions League glory.
Bayern Munich host Manchester United for arguably the most high-profile of matchups on Matchday 1, but on closer look, it is a complete mismatch. Yet, for how long will we be served such an exciting game with lots riding on it?
This is set to be the last group stage campaign as UEFA replaces it with one big league from next year that ensures more games but far less drama.
The collapse of the proposed European Super League (ESL) in 2021 has prompted European football’s governing body to appease its biggest clubs by giving them an expanded Champions League. A new ‘Swiss Model’ will see four more teams added to complete one giant league of 36 where each club will play eight different opponents and the top eight will progress to the Last 16 while those ranked ninth to 24th will have the safety net of a play-off round to reach the knockouts.
Therefore, Wednesday’s match at the Allianz Arena is one of our final chances to see two European juggernauts compete for the all-important top spot in Group A ahead of Galatasaray and Copenhagen.
Boasting nine European Cups between them, this fixture is best remembered for that epic final in 1999 when United emphatically scored twice in added time to complete the treble at Camp Nou.
Since that unfortunate evening, Bayern have only lost one of their eight meetings with United, winning four and drawing three times.
The Red Devils will have hoped to return to the top tier of European football in much better form after they were booed off in a 3-1 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion, making it three losses from their opening five games for the first time in the Premier League era.
Erik ten Hag’s side find themselves languishing in 13th place and they have just one win in their last six away games. Meanwhile, the Bavarians have never lost at home to Man Utd who are used to suffering UCL defeats to Bayern (four) after losing to only Barcelona more times (five) in the competition.
United’s poor form will not be helped by an even worse injury record which has been added to by a fresh blow to Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Indeed, Raphaël Varane, Luke Shaw, Tyrell Malacia, Mason Mount, Sofyan Amrabat, Tom Heaton, Amad Diallo and Kobbie Mainoo are also on the sidelines, but Ten Hag has hinted that at least one of Mount, Varane or Amrabat could make the trip to Germany.
Problems persist in the unavoidable absences of Antony ‘until further notice’ amid allegations of assault made against him, and Jadon Sancho who is banished from first-team training following his social media outburst at the manager.
A dearth of right-winger options prompted an unsuccessful experiment with a 4-4-2 diamond formation in the loss to Brighton, meaning Ten Hag could revert to the 4-2-3-1 setup against Bayern with Alejandro Garnacho, Facundo Pellistri or Bruno Fernandes starting on the right.
Despite the slim possibility, causing an upset in Munich could kickstart United’s season as their biggest strengths lie in the counter-attack with Fernandes potentially playing brilliant passes in behind the Bayern defence for Marcus Rashford and Rasmus Højlund.
They must be clinical and hope their makeshift backline somehow holds out in order to take a positive result back to Manchester.
The almighty Bavarian job
Bayern’s 100% start may have ended late in a thrilling 2-2 draw at home to Bayer Leverkusen but they will be laser-focused as Thomas Tuchel faces old foes.
The Bavarians are experts at this level as they boast a record 34-game unbeaten run in the group stage and completed a perfect set of six wins last season for the third time – the most in the competition.
The German champions have never lost at home to Man United and they will be keen on securing a record-extending 14th straight group-stage win at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday. Looking to progress to the Champions League knockout rounds for the 16th consecutive year, the top spot in Group A is simply Bayern’s to lose.
Manuel Neuer and Raphaël Guerreiro are expected to miss this match due to injury but Kingsley Coman is close to full fitness and might be available from the bench.
Nevertheless, Bayern can call on an almost full-strength side with Former Tottenham Hotspur talisman Harry Kane set to play an important role after scoring five career goals against United. The England captain has four goals with an assist in four Bundesliga games so far and will be joined in attack by Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane and one of the returning Jamal Musiala or Thomas Muller.
The latter is more likely to start behind Kane as he currently sits on 99 Champions League wins from 142 appearances and a victory against United will make him just the third player to ever reach 100 wins in the competition, behind Cristiano Ronaldo (115) and Iker Casillas (101).
All of logic, current form and recent history points to Bayern Munich securing another win in a competition they are so dominant in while United seek to navigate a tough start to the season. Although Ten Hag’s charges will pose a threat on the counter, they lack the belief or momentum to really secure a positive result where many others have failed.