When Manchester United were last a Champions League club, it was their miserable group-stage exit which ensured the writing was on the wall for manager Louis van Gaal.
Their 2017-18 campaign could barely be more different to date, with Wednesday’s Anthony Martial-inspired 4-1 victory away to CSKA Moscow putting them in a dominant position in Group A.
What looked like a straight-forward draw from the off now looks like an absolute gift, with the easy 3-0 stroll past Basel two weeks ago being followed by an even more one-sided display at the VEB Arena as Jose Mourinho’s side showed they are far better equipped for Champions League football this time around.
While CSKA had come from behind to beat Benfica on matchday one, they looked vulnerable to pace and movement in their defensive third throughout and it was only due to the Portuguese side’s failure to capitalise that they left Lisbon with the three points.
There was never going to be any such liberties allowed by a United team which looks hungry for blood at every turn this season, and Martial’s pace was predictably the biggest difference between the two sides.
Romelu Lukaku started and finished the move which gave United the lead inside four minutes, feeding Martial with a pinpoint pass before meeting the Frenchman’s cross with a trademark header. Georgi Schennikov then made a meal of standing up to Henrikh Mkhitaryan, bringing down the Armenian for Martial to make it two from the spot.
The worst was still to come for the CSKA back line though as Vasili Berezutski swung at the air instead of the ball to allow Martial’s cross to be easily turned in by Lukaku. It was the Belgian’s 10th goal in only his ninth game for the club, and was his easiest by some distance. Mkhitaryan would later grab a fourth when following up Igor Akinfeev’s parry from a Martial shot.
Substitute Konstantin Kuchaev’s late consolation will have annoyed Mourinho but did little to change the overall complexion. Indeed, the ease with which they strode past the Russians was in marked contrast to the difficulty Van Gaal’s side made of a similarly straight-forward group against PSV, CSKA and Wolfsburg when United last graced the Champions League.
A favourable draw in 2015-16 was somehow not capitalised upon and they found themselves in the Europa League by Christmas. There will be no such outcome this time.
Next up for United is a double-header against a Benfica side which lost at home to this rag-tag CSKA team and then were handed a spanking by Basel, the same outfit United cast aside with ease a fortnight ago. It will be a surprise of massive proportions if Mourinho’s men don’t have 12 points by the end of matchday four.
And that would be the perfect scenario for their manager, who will certainly want progression before the final fixture due to the clashes with Arsenal and Manchester City which come either side of CSKA’s visit to Old Trafford in December. Having the job done with two matches to spare can only give him even more opportunity to manipulate his squad for a focus on the important domestic games to come.
United’s last Champions League campaign ended with Nick Powell being bafflingly thrown on in place of Juan Mata as they limped out of the competition with a 3-2 loss at Wolfsburg. There will be unfamiliar faces gracing their final group game again this time around, but only because Mourinho will be able to give some youngsters a chance since progression will surely be booked with plenty of time to spare.
This is how Champions League groups are meant to be dealt with.
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