Welcome to the Champions League, kid, now go take down Goliath.
Swiss side Young Boys make their debut in group stage proper of Europe’s most prestigious club tournament Wednesday when they host one of its most storied sides in three-time champions Manchester United.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Young Boys ended the eight-year reign of FC Basel atop the Swiss Super League last season, but getting to this point was not guaranteed since they still had to navigate the qualifying rounds. They accomplished that in dramatic fashion against Dinamo Zagreb last month, overturning a 1-0 deficit in the second leg in Croatia on a brace by Guillaume Hourau. His penalty in the 66th minute — two minutes after he leveled the match — was enough to send Young Boys through 3-2 on aggregate and onto Europe’s biggest stage.
The victory exorcised the demons of their 2010 failure in that round, when Young Boys had stormed out to a 3-0 lead versus Tottenham Hotspur inside the first half-hour of the first leg, only to concede twice and then get roundly beaten 4-0 at White Hart Lane in the return encounter. It was also all the sweeter after missing out last season in the same round, losing to CSKA Moscow, before running away to win the Swiss Super League with four matches to spare.
The 34-year-old Hourau has emerged as an unlikely talisman of this time, a one-time PSG reject with five caps for France whose career was rejuvenated when he joined the Swiss outfit in 2014. Hourau has scored 86 goals in league and European play and is off to a fast start once again with four goals in helping Young Boys claim the maximum 18 points through their first six matches.
“Guillaume is not only the best striker, but the soul and the leader of the team,” RTS commentator David Lemos told ESPN FC. “He is clever, funny off the pitch, and decisive on it. People in Bern absolutely love him.”
First-year coach Gerardo Seoane has largely left the philosophy of predecessor Adi Hutter in place as Young Boys use a high pressing style. They have scored 19 goals in league play while conceding four and recorded four clean sheets. Christian Fassnacht had a brace in the most recent contest, a 3-0 victory at FC Sion on Sept. 1 that was also their first shutout in three matches.
Manchester United appear beyond the doldrums that plagued them early on. They have won back-to-back matches on the road and ended Watford’s 100 percent run with a 2-1 victory at Vicarage Road in their last league contest Saturday.
Romelu Lukaku and defender Chris Smalling scored three minutes apart late in the first half when the hosts afforded them too much respect, and United then saw off a spirited challenge from the upstarts as they hunted an equaliser for nearly a half-hour and played the final minutes with a man advantage after Nemanja Matic was sent off for his second booking.
United played that match without attacking winger Marcus Rashford, who served the first of a three-match ban for violent conduct in their win over Burnley. Jose Mourinho did not guarantee Rashford a spot in the starting XI, but given he has the most energy to burn since he will sit out this weekend’s contest at Wolverhampton, it would not be a stretch to see him on the pitch from the opening kick.
“He’s selected for the game,” Mourinho said Tuesday of Rashford while still showing a little of the salt from the previous week when he defended his use of the England international. “But I just want to remind you, in advance, that we can only start with XI. So when tomorrow you see the team you could try to speak about the ones that are going to play and don’t critique the ones that are not going to play.
“So we have Lukaku, Rashford, Mata, Alexis, Martial and they can not play all together. So try to be a little bit happy with the ones that are playing and not to be greedy with the ones that are not playing.”
Luke Shaw is expected to be back in the starting lineup after sitting out the win over Watford following a concussion suffered on international duty for England in their Nations League loss to Spain. Antonio Valencia, however, did not make the trip since Mourinho did not want to expose the veteran full back to Young Boys’ synthetic pitch and will opt for either Ashley Young or Diogo Dalot, the latter of whom has yet to feature for the senior side.
Despite this being a debut for Young Boys, United would like to forget some of their previous trips to Switzerland. Basel proved a bogey ground on the last two visits to St. Jakob-Park, including last season’s 1-0 defeat in group play, but it is United’s 2-1 loss in 2011 that is recalled far more vividly in Switzerland as it allowed Basel to progress into the knockout round at United’s expense.
Per Ladbrokes, United are decisive 8/11 favourites to return home with three points and their third win on the trot. A draw is preferred at 27/10 slightly more than a Young Boys upset victory, which is listed at 15/4 odds.
With relation to the 2.5 over/under goals standard, United are 8/5 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored and fetch a 13/4 return on a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline. A scoreless or 1-1 draw has 19/5 odds, while a Young Boys win and over 2.5 goals has 13/2 odds compared to a 1-0 or 2-0 victory at 9/1.
Lukaku is an expected front-runner for first-goal honours at 7/2, trailed by Rashford (9/2) and Alexis Sanchez (5/1). Hoarau cracks the top five overall, tied with Martial at 6/1 and edging out Jesse Lingard (13/2) and Paul Pogba (7/1), whose two goals in league play have come from the penalty spot.
United’s attacking trio are also the top three options for a goal at any time during the match, with Lukaku leading the way at 5/4, Rashford checking in at 6/4 and Sanchez bringing up the rear at 7/4. Hoarau is a 2/1 bet to prevent David De Gea from posting his 14th career Champions League clean sheet.
Another match, another chance for the aura of Manchester United to render an opponent helpless for a pivotal stretch in which they can take control of the match. This sounds a little passive-aggressive, sure, but for all the hope neutrals had last weekend in hoping Watford would come out from the get-go and take it to United, the wiles of Mourinho and his men proved too much as they played a ruthless road match.
That pattern should play out here, with United trying to stretch Young Boys all over the pitch when against the high press of the Swiss side. Young Boys keeper David Van Ballmoos does have European experience, but he did not notch his first win in continental play until last month in his 11th such match.
There is much talk about the synthetic turf, though most of it comes after the match when both players and managers are complaining about the knock-on soreness following 90 minutes of running on it. United are the fourth Premier League team to be making the trip to Bern this decade, joining Spurs, Everton and Liverpool, and of the three, only the Lilywhites made the trek back to England empty-handed.
Recent history will allow Mourinho to remind his players not to take their opponents for granted, but as it pertains to United, they appear to be a team rounding the corner. A road sweep of three opponents would be another step in getting themselves in position to make a charge up the table.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Young Boys 0, Manchester United 2.
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