Roaming the visitors' technical area at Old Trafford will be former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia, who is now manager of the Bundesliga club.
Going on current form, Hyypia’s Leverkusen look to be United’s main competition in Group A, with Shakhtar Donetsk in disarray following the summer departures of Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. While the Ukrainian champions moved fast to replace the duo by signing Bernard, Fernando and Fred, their remodelled team will need time to jell before they can once again threaten Europe’s established elite. It’s unlikely the club will be able to better their semi-final appearance in 2010 this year.
By contrast, having sold Andre Schurrle to Chelsea back in June, Leverkusen are in good shape having won four out of their first five Bundesliga games this year. They also ended last season strongly with the newly installed Hyypia (who became the team’s manager in April) securing a third-place finish with five consecutive victories, a feat that was beyond title-winners Bayern Munich, Juventus and United.
In fact, Leverkusen were the only team to defeat Bayern in the league last year, and their final points tally of 35 was just one shy of total amassed by Jurgen Klopp’s beaten Champions League finalists, Borussia Dortmund.
Having beaten Wolfsburg 3-1 at the weekend with a goal from tricky winger Sidney Sam and a brace from powerful striker Stefan Kiessling, the club dubbed as “Neverkusen," due to their historic inability to land silverware, cannot be underestimated.
This is a must-win game against United’s key rivals for control of Group A, and one that David Moyes cannot approach lightly.
However, coming eight years on from Moyes’ first appearance in the Champions League with Everton, United’s new manager must also be aware of his priorities on the domestic front.
Back in 2005, Everton were knocked out in the final qualifying round prior to the group stage by Manuel Pellegrini’s Villarreal, and the spectre of another showdown with the Chilean, now in charge at Manchester City, looms large over next weekend.
The distractions of a landmark Manchester derby this coming Sunday may force Moyes’ hand when it comes to squad rotation and selecting the team to face Leverkusen. United certainly have plenty of options available thanks to their enthusiastic new signings, returning first-team starters and youthful prospects, all keen for playing time.
How will Moyes’ Manchester United line up against Bayer Leverkusen this weekend?
Expect firmly established No.1 David De Gea to start in goal for United's first Champions League game of this season.
Central defence: An opportunity for Jonny Evans and squad rotation
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have so far been the foundation upon which Moyes’ team selections have been built. The prospect of the two veteran defenders, aged 34 and 31 respectively, playing two games in the space of a week is far from ideal given their fitness issues in recent seasons.
There is an alternative.
Last year Jonny Evans was the club’s second-most played centre-back after Ferdinand making a total of 30 appearances. Five of those appearances came in the Champions League and included an impressive outing against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, and the Northern Irishman seemed to be the team’s first-choice defender at times. Had it not been for injury, he may well have been just that.
With his excellent long-range passing ability—precise diagonals to the flanks rather than the hoof balls usually associated with players in his position—Evans offers a unique quality to United’s back line alongside Ferdinand’s capacity to carry the ball out of defence, the physical presence of Vidic and the energy and potential of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
Having rehabilitated his reputation after United’s 6-1 mauling by City two years ago, a game in which Evans was sent off, he has become a highly versatile player well-suited to partnering United’s other central defenders.
Leverkusen’s main striker, Kiessling, may have one of the most potent heads in Europe, but Evans’ own aerial power has been in evidence ever since he comfortably muzzled Didier Drogba against Chelsea in 2009. Now that his skill in the tackle and reading of the game has developed, he is a credible backup to the Champions League-winning combination of Ferdinand and Vidic.
After playing for Northern Ireland last week and performing well for the reserves in late August, he would be an perfectly equipped to secure United’s lines and get his season underway on Tuesday night.
Should both of United’s senior defenders be given the opportunity to rest up before facing City, Evans will need a partner, and Smalling fits the bill. Another strong presence in the air, Smalling is also calm and composed on the ball. While his development has been affected by injury and the arrival of Jones, his increased mobility would enable him and Evans to push United’s defensive line higher in support of the midfield. A higher defensive line would also help to keep Kiessling out of reach of David De Gea's area.
Don't be surprised if one of Ferdinand or Vidic does start alongside Evans on Tuesday.
Full-backs: Patrice Evra and Fabio da Silva look nailed on if Smalling plays centrally
At left-back, Patrice Evra is sure to start, and Fabio is a likely contender for the right-back spot should Smalling play in the middle of defence. Jones is still fighting to regain his fitness in time for Sunday when he’s sure to feature at right-back if available to add some extra bite and solidarity to the back line.
That would leave the Brazilian as the only credible option after doing well against Crystal Palace at the weekend. While clearly some way behind his brother Rafael, who has made the right-back position his own after enjoying plenty of playing time over the last two or three season, Fabio can replicate that progress if he can capitalise on the current opportunities available to him.
Alexander Buttner has an outside chance of making an appearance should Moyes wish to keep Evra fresh, but it’s difficult to see him starting considering the importance of the fixture.
Should Smalling not be needed in the centre, however, his more physical presence could be useful at right-back, especially when clearing out aerial balls down the flank.
Central midfield: Marouane Fellaini could make his first start
Having made his debut off the bench against Crystal Palace at the weekend, Fellaini may feature for the first time in United’s starting lineup against Leverkusen.
With the Bundesliga outfit's main creative outlet coming from Sam and Son Heung-Min, the Belgian's ability to press and dominate opposition players could be a useful asset for driving them off the ball and unsettling their games. Son especially likes to drop back slightly and dribble his way through opposing defences. Having a midfield enforcer on hand to close up any gaps as they appear and punish players attempting to get creative with space could be very effective in stifling Leverkusen's supply chain to Kiessling.
On the other hand, Moyes may want to use Fellaini against City at the weekend, but Fellaini would benefit from a midweek appearance if only to help him get up to speed with the other members of the matchday squad. Tom Cleverley, Anderson or Ryan Giggs could be brought on to replace United's new signing in the second half so he can get some minutes but also be sharp for Sunday.
Alternatively, United’s new middle man may be left out entirely, although resting Michael Carrick may be more tempting considering the minimal cover that exists in the squad for the Englishman’s vital midfield role.
Resting both Fellaini and Carrick could see Giggs start as the senior midfielder on Tuesday, with one of Cleverly or Anderson supporting the Welshman with younger legs and stamina.
On the flanks: Wilfried Zaha in for Antonio Valencia?
Although his delivery hasn’t been up to standard of late, the defensive side of Antonio Valencia’s game makes him an important player for Moyes in games against United’s toughest opponents. The Ecuadorian has also been every present so far this season.
With his work rate tracking back and contributions toward winning back the ball, it’s easy to see why Valencia may be pulled out of the team in order to ensure he is in the best possible condition to play against City.
Since Nani is currently suspended due to his red card against Real Madrid last season, this would open up an opportunity on the right for Zaha, who is yet to make a competitive appearance for United.
Offering an added touch of flair going forward, which may well be required to break down a resilient, counterattacking Leverkusen side, Zaha could get the nod to start down the flank.
In the hole: Moyes could finally make use of Shinji Kagawa
When Shinji Kagawa was signed last summer, many cited his arrival as a move that would upgrade United’s abilities on the European stage.
So far this season, he is yet to play under Moyes following a busy summer at the Confederations Cup that limited the amount of rest he enjoyed. Having suffered a major injury setback early last season due to lacking match fitness, his absence of late has been due to a concerted effort to ensure Kagawa is eased into first-team football rather than put at risk again by rushing him into action.
Having played well for Japan last week, the attacking midfielder was sidelined at the weekend due to flu, which could also curtail his presence on Tuesday. Yet if he is able to play and carry the team’s creative burden in the hole, Wayne Rooney could be rested in the hope that the Englishman can once again be a decisive presence in the Manchester derby.
Even if Rooney were to play against Leverkusen, considering Moyes’ preference for deploying his playmakers tucked in on the left, Kagawa may at least find that his role in the team has been given some thought and structure even if he doesn’t get the opportunity to play centrally at first.
Strikers: Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez may deputise for Rooney or Robin van Persie but probably not both
Robin van Persie has played in every one of United’s games so far this season, and with the Dutchman’s fitness requiring careful management, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez may be handed starts against Leverkusen.
Due to the importance of the game, Van Persie may well still be present on the bench as an emergency match winner, but having suffered a few knocks and heavy challenges against Palace at the weekend, sending him out to face one of the Bundesliga’s most imposing defences may be a step too far.
Should a strike force of Welbeck and Hernandez appear too lightweight, Rooney could feature as the team’s main focus of attack, with one of the former strikers replacing him in the second half in order to keep him ready for City.
Hernandez would be the obvious choice to perform such a duty as United’s substitute forward. With Welbeck’s ability to play a deeper role, linking up play and pressing opposition defenders, he may also be seen as the more suited starter.
How would you like to see Manchester United line up against Leverkusen on Tuesday?
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