It’s not quite hell any more, and Manchester United no longer look so tormented, but they do need salvation on Wednesday. Galasataray’s relatively new Rams Park stadium will be the stage for a definitive point in a season of hinge moments – at least, if Erik ten Hag’s side get through it, until the next one.
United need victory to have any chance of getting through to the Champions League, but really know they need two in a row. The reason that has an importance for stakes beyond staying in the most prestigious competition is that such a key step can have an effect on everything that follows because of its significance. It is either confirmation that the team is on course or more serious cause for doubt.
Ten Hag has endured a constant back-and-forth this season where the team has occasionally been convincing but results have never been consistent. Even some of the better victories have had that sense of only momentarily disguising the problems. The 3-0 win over Everton was a case in point because of how Sean Dyche’s side got at them before Marcus Rashford’s penalty.
It has all left them in a situation that most clubs don’t get out of – but which isn’t quite impossible for United.
They will be looking to become just the 10th club in Champions League history to get through the group stages having accumulated three points or fewer with just two games left. That’s just over two per cent of all 424 qualifiers since the group stage became the first round in 1994-95. It’s an awful lot to do, but there is at least some encouragement it’s possible. Four of the sides to have managed this have been in even worse positions. Three have been English, and two among their greatest rivals.
Champions League miracle workers
The nine teams that got through with three points or fewer with two games left
Rosenborg 1996-97, three points
Lyon 2000-01, three points
Newcastle United 2002-03, three points
Lokomotiv Moscow 2002-03, one point
FC Porto 2004-05, two points
Stuttgart 2009-10, three points
Manchester City 2014-15, two points
Arsenal 2015-16, three points
Atalanta 2019-20, one point
The question of whether they can do it in these games is of course connected to the far greater puzzle over whether it’s coming together for the season. This is another discussion that feels like it’s being repeated again and again – particularly when United go through a brief sequence of wins.
The feeling from the outside has been that they’re just getting through it until the next disappointment, which Champions League elimination obviously would be; that the recent wins have been an illusory positive.
The talk within, as has long been relayed, is that almost all of this is down to injuries and constant changes in personnel. There have nevertheless been misgivings about Ten Hag’s hardline approach with certain players, an overemphasis on fitness work and the fact that there is no real sense of the manager’s tactical idea. This is why doubts have persisted even around wins, and an otherwise admirable sense of defiance.
Ten Hag, for his own part, would insist that a run of results will restore confidence which will make the team look more like what they’re supposed to.
“It is good progress,” he said on the eve of the Galatasaray game. “You see we are stepping up, more stable, winning games so definitely there is progress from the first game.“
The Dutch coach believes that Kobbie Mainoo greatly helps that. There’s even a suspicion that his impact can end up being even more impressive and important than what it has been seen so far. Ten Hag is hopeful that Mainoo can be the Frenkie de Jong-style midfielder that he has been lacking since joining the club, and wants to see how a pairing with Mason Mount works.
That could be crucial, although it is obviously a lot of pressure to put on a mere 18-year-old.
It’s easy to forget now but one of the reasons that Ten Hag so pursued De Jong was because he feels the Dutch international is close to unique as a midfielder. Liverpool’s Ryan Gravenberch was actually one of very few who looked like he could have the qualities to be developed into a similar sort of player. Since Ten Hag couldn’t get either, though, the club went a completely different route with Casemiro.
The Brazilian did offer a fine solution, but one that increasingly looks like it was a stop-gap. Ten Hag has been imagining his team going in another direction.
Mainoo aids that. He has many of the same qualities as De Jong. He offers balance and that understanding of the way Ten Hag wants the team to move. Mainoo is certainly making good on the way coaches and scouts spoke about him when he was as young as 11. Youth cup opponents commented on how they’d never seen players so developed technically and mentally at Mainoo’s age.
“Kobbie is so mature,” Ten Hag says now.
It says even more that there is absolutely no concern about exposing him to Galatasaray’s infamous ferocious atmosphere.
“No, we don’t have fear,” Ten Hag said. “If players are good enough then they are old enough.”
The manner in which Mainoo immediately makes the formation fit should at least theoretically mean that Galatasaray won’t just cut through United in the way they did in the 3-2 win at Old Trafford.
Reality can go another way, though, and involve a lot of unpredictables. It isn’t to question Mainoo’s superb ability to say it is maybe a reflection of where United are right now that there is so much responsibility on a teenager.
A problem with United that precedes Ten Hag has also been the number of players or situations which look like a fix-all solution… but only for a brief period, because the issues are naturally much greater. Casemiro was one of them.
Those with knowledge of the squad have commented on how “nothing seems to stick long-term”.
Rashford looks elite “for a while”. Anthony Martial threatens a comeback “for a while”.
A while might be all that is required right now, though, since United just need to get through this group to keep the season on track. That’s two weeks, set up by this one huge game.
It is also a fixture loaded with all sorts of history and menace. United enlisted some of the players involved in that notorious 3-3 draw 30 years ago to speak about their experience before this game.
The Champions League is a very different competition than it was then, though. This isn’t the Ali Sami Yen Stadium and this isn’t 1993.
There is a familiarity from modern exposure which means very few venues carry that same level of intimidation. The main anxiety United might feel is the prospect of again failing, something that has been seen a few times this season.
It is something else Ten Hag has been working on.
He said: “You have to stay calm in your head and don’t get too emotional and control emotion, don’t give them anything, the referee as well, don’t give them a moment they can take, so you have to stay away from such moments. You have to make it your game. It is not that important how the opponent is playing, it is how you are playing. We will make a good plan and the players, they have to decide.”
They could go some way in deciding how this entire season goes.
Galatasaray vs Manchester United kicks off at 5.45pm on Wednesday. Coverage begins on TNT Sports 1 at 5pm