Manchester United will be hoping that the arrivals of Jadon Sancho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane turn them into contenders
Manchester United will be hoping that the arrivals of Jadon Sancho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane turn them into contenders

Manchester United qualified automatically for the Champions League after finishing as Premier League runners-up — behind bitter rivals Manchester City.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side topped the table at one point but a combination of their form fading and City returning to their unstoppable best saw hopes of a 21st top-flight title dissipate at Old Trafford.

They did at least manage to disrupt the Citizens’ romp a little, winning 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium in March to end a 15-game winning streak.

But a 2-1 loss at home to Leicester in May ended up sealing the title for their sworn enemies, so it is fair to say that the campaign could have ended on a more positive note in the red half of Manchester.

Manchester United's Champions League group

Group F: Villarreal, Manchester United, Atalanta, Young Boys

Read more: Champions League guide — Group F in focus

European history

United were the first English team to lift the European Cup, as Bobby Charlton’s brace helped Matt Busby’s side to a 4-1 victory over Benfica at Wembley in 1968.

They have repeated that success twice since. First in 1999 — when stoppage-time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Solskjaer secured one of the most iconic comebacks of all time — and in 2008, defeating Chelsea on penalties in the first-ever all-English final.

Jose Mourinho guided the Red Devils to Europa League success in 2017, while they also lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991.

Cristiano Ronaldo was key to their 2008 triumph and his return this summer will provide a huge boost to United's hopes of going all the way again.

Manchester United continue to improve under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but finished some way off top spot last season
Manchester United continue to improve under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but finished some way off top spot last season

Expectations

Since losing the 2011 Champions League final to Barcelona at Wembley, United have only progressed beyond the last 16 twice in seven attempts.

With that in mind, and some impressive summer business — Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane provide a much-needed injection of quality — expectations are bound to be high.

United lost three of their six group games last season, including an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to competition newcomers Istanbul Basaksehir.

Cristiano Ronaldo will bring a winning mentality to United and scored in the 2008 final
Cristiano Ronaldo will bring a winning mentality to United and scored in the 2008 final

Star man: Bruno Fernandes

Few players have enjoyed as fine a first season in England as Fernandes did in 2020-21.

The Portuguese midfield maestro — who, like Ronaldo, moved to United from Sporting — scored 18 goals and providing 12 assists. Only Harry Kane made more goal contributions.

Nine of those 18 strikes came from the spot, and there are few, if any, more reliable penalty takers than the 26-year-old.

Fernandes is renowned for his goalkeeper-perplexing, jumping run-ups, although he insists he does not stick to a set style.

He said: “I don’t have a specific technique in taking penalties — I just stick to what I feel is most comfortable.”

Bruno Fernandes has been Manchester United's most influential player since arriving
Bruno Fernandes has been Manchester United's most influential player since arriving

One to watch: Jadon Sancho

United finally got their man after a year of waiting, as England winger Sancho completed a £73million switch from Borussia Dortmund this summer.

The 21-year-old, a product of the Watford and Manchester City youth systems, already has plenty of Champions League experience under his belt, helping Dortmund to the quarter-finals last season.

In 21 Champions League appearances, Sancho has scored five goals and assisted six — but it would be no great surprise to see him match both of those totals this season alone.

The boss: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Forever a United legend thanks to his Champions League-sealing winner in Barcelona 22 years ago, Solskjaer succeeded Jose Mourinho in the Old Trafford dugout in 2018, initially as a caretaker manager.

While not an overwhelmingly popular choice, the former striker seems to be turning United into a force again — as evidenced by their strong showing in the league last season, if not in Europe.

The 48-year-old was previously in charge of Welsh side Cardiff and Molde in his native Norway.

Securing continental success this season would undoubtedly take Solskjaer’s legendary status to a whole new level among the Red Devils faithful.

All information correct as of 4pm, August 31, 2021

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