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Manchester United got a crucial 3-1 home win over Club Brugge in the first leg of their Champions League group stage qualification tie. Memphis Depay put on a display for the ages in only his third competitive performance for his new club, scoring two goals and assisting on the third. United will travel to Belgium for the second leg with a two-goal advantage, as they look to break into the group stages of this year’s Champions League.
The idea that a club with the prestige of Manchester United would have to win a play-off to even get into the group stages of the Champions League is a little confusing to the casual fan, but every year a qualification process goes on before the group stages start. Although United finished fourth in the Premier League last season, earning them a spot in the Champions League for this year, they still have to play in a qualification round, along with clubs from leagues with less prestige and clubs who finished either third or fourth in their better-known leagues.
The qualification process for the Champions League each year is very complicated with a lot of moving parts. UEFA, European football’s governing body and the organization that puts on the Champions League, has rankings for each league around Europe. Based on those rankings, they decide how many teams from each country’s domestic league will qualify for the Champions League. So leagues like the Premier League of England and La Liga of Spain will have four teams who qualify for each season of the Champions League, where a country like Norway, for example, will only have one, or maybe two, teams qualify because their teams have had less success going far in Europe’s elite club competition.
Here, though, is where it gets even more complicated; not every club who qualifies for the Champions League makes it right into the group stage, even from countries like England or Spain. For those countries, their fourth-place finisher will have to qualify by playing in the playoff round in which Manchester United is currently taking part. It is an even tougher process for the smaller countries which only get one or two clubs that qualify because they have to play in even more qualification rounds before a team like Manchester United even gets involved. Even the champions of their leagues often have to qualify through a long process before their domestic leagues even start.
That long qualification process is now drawing to a close, and that is when the bigger clubs, who still need to qualify, get involved, hence Manchester United’s win over Club Brugge. This was just the first leg that they won 3-1 and now they will travel to Belgium and try to seal the aggregate victory to break into the group stage. Brugge getting an away goal helps their cause a little, but that will be rendered a moot point if Manchester United can score at all in the second leg.
Getting a victory in a crucial clash is obviously the main take-away for Manchester United here, but they will also be thrilled with the incredible breakout performance of their summer sign, Memphis. The Dutchman had received some early, very harsh, criticism for not being very involved in United’s first two league victories, but he stepped up in a big way in this one. After falling behind on an unfortunate Michael Carrick own goal only eight minutes in, the match became the Memphis show. He put in two incredibly impressive goals and added an assist on a great cross in extra time to pad the lead.
While this victory was a big one for manager Louis Van Gaal and Manchester United, there is still a lot to be done at Old Trafford to ensure that they can contend for both the Champions League and Premier League titles. The transfer window is still open and there are some definite holes that can still be filled, mainly in defense and central striker positions. Chris Smalling has played very well to open the season and Phil Jones is a nice piece, but another defender to strengthen the back line would be a very good purchase for Manchester United. The center forward position is still very much a concern, with the voids left by the departures of Robin Van Persie and Falcao still yet to be filled. Wayne Rooney is a very capable striker, but he is also skilled at so many other things that is almost seems a waste to use him only in that role. If they do not pursue another striker, fatigue will also be a major concern for Rooney, as he will be the only true striker on a team that will be competing for multiple titles in many different fixtures.
Manchester United were very impressive in their victory over Club Brugge, especially Memphis, and they will look to continue that form into the second leg of their Champions League qualification tie. So far this season they have come away with three victories in their first three matches and have looked more convincing in each one. Next up, United will face Newcastle in a Premier League fixture, and then travel to Belgium midweek to hopefully finish off Club Brugge on their way to qualifying for the Champions League group stage.
Commentary by Max Petkevicius
ESPN: Depay, Defence Spearhead Key Man United Victory over Brugge
Manchester Evening News: Manchester United Transfer Rumors
Goal: Memphis Lights Up Old Trafford
Photo by Matt Janzer Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License