Manchester United find out their upcoming Champions League group stage opponents on Thursday – and will look to avoid a repeat of last season’s group in which they were eliminated by Paris Saint-Germain and Leipzig.
The draw, which will take place in Lyon on Thursday, has United in pot two; meaning they won’t play any of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Juventus, PSG and Borussia Dortmund.
Although, despite those teams being more than capable of giving United a tough game, pot one will throw up much easier opponents – with Villarreal, who famously beat United in the Europa League Final in May – alongside Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Lille and Sporting Lisbon making up the potential opponents United could play.
Arch-rivals Liverpool are in pot two with United, whilst last season’s finalists Manchester City and Chelsea are in pot one as a result of their domestic and continental efforts last season – although United cannot face fellow English sides.
And, whilst pots three and four aren’t finalised as of yet due to the qualifiers, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be hoping his team comes up against the lowest-ranked seeds in each play-off.
However, if worse comes to worst, then United would be in a similar predicament to last season in a potential failure to progress through the group.
Strictly speaking, it would be hard to look past Atletico Madrid or Bayern Munich as the hardest seeds in pot one.
Villarreal, despite their heroics against United back in May, would struggle to beat the Red Devils in a 90-minute match, although they still would pose a threat.
Moreover, Lille have been stripped of their talents who won the league for them last season; manager Christophe Galtier has become Nice manager, whilst Mike Maignan and Boubakary Soumare have left for AC Milan and Leicester City respectively.
Making up the rest of pot one are Inter Milan and Sporting Lisbon – and with Inter losing Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku, they aren’t the same side that won Serie A, meaning United would fancy their chances.
From pot three, the hardest sides are Porto, Ajax, Leipzig and Atalanta.
With Leipzig having knocked United out of the Champions League groups last season, they would ideally want to be avoided.
However, Atalanta also pose a huge threat, and having reached the quarter-finals in 2020 and the last 16 in 2021, they would fancy their chances against United.
With Euro 2020 stars Joakim Maehle and Robin Gosens occupying the wing-back roles, with Josip Ilicic, Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel running amok upfront, the Bergamo-based side are an extremely tough outfit to contain.
And the toughest side in pot four is undoubtedly AC Milan – although with Atalanta in the group, that means they wouldn’t be able to partake – leaving German side Wolfsburg to take on the Red Devils.
Again, they are a side who shouldn’t be underestimated – despite finishing fourth last season, they conceded the second least goals in the Bundesliga – less than Bayern and Dortmund – and finished just four points off second, which would have put them in pot two.
Boasting upcoming talents such as Maxence Lacroix, Kevin Mbabu and Luca Waldschmidt, a tough game at the Volkswagen Arena should be anticipated.
Overall, the nightmare scenario would see United face Atletico Madrid, Atalanta and Wolfsburg on their journey to Saint Petersburg in May 2022 – arguably their most challenging group yet.