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The Red Devils are missing one of their first-choice center-backs and their Italian opponents have the ambition and quality to make this a high-scoring game.
Manchester United have made an indifferent start to the 2021/21 campaign. They are still within touching distance of the top of the Premier League table but have been nowhere near as convincing as the other title contenders in the division. Their recent defeat by Aston Villa and draw with Everton showed that United remains more vulnerable than they should be having assembled such a strong squad. The Champions League defeat by Young Boys and League Cup exit at the hands of West Ham United were even more damaging.
The buck stops with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He is approaching his third anniversary in charge of the club; the time for excuses is over. United brought in three world-class talents in the summer, signing Raphael Varane from Real Madrid, Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund and Cristiano Ronaldo from Juventus. This is not a particularly young side and it is no longer good enough to say United are moving in the right direction. It is time to start winning trophies.
The next few weeks could determine if Solskjaer is the man to lead that pursuit of silverware. In the Premier League United face Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Watford, Chelsea and Arsenal before the start of December. They could feasibly be out of the title race at the end of that stretch if results go against them. Solskjaer has a decent record in the biggest matches, but that will count for nothing if United are outclassed by their closest domestic rivals.
That aforementioned loss to Young Boys means Solskjaer can ill-afford any more slip-ups in the Champions League either. United should beat the Swiss side at Old Trafford on matchday six, but before that they face tricky trips to Atalanta and Villarreal. That is why Wednesday’s game – their penultimate home match in the group phase – is so vital.
Atalanta are taking part in the Champions League for a third consecutive season. That is a tremendous record of achievement given they have only a middling wage bill by Serie A standards. Gian Piero Gasperini is the mastermind behind the club’s recent success. The Italian has always been a talented coach, and Atalanta have astutely provided him with the tools to create a team that is now established as one of the best in Italian soccer.
Atalanta are not just in the Champions League to make up the numbers. They reached the quarter-finals in 2019/20 and were just moments away from progressing to the last four at the expense of Paris Saint-Germain. La Dea also advanced beyond the group phase last term, before suffering elimination in the round of 16 after a 4-1 aggregate defeat by Real Madrid. In the current campaign, Atalanta sit top of Group F going into matchday three, having beaten Young Boys 1-0 and drawn 2-2 with Villarreal.
The economic reality of modern-day soccer has forced Atalanta to sell many of their key players in recent years, but they have always managed to bounce back. That is because Gasperini has instituted a system and a structure at the Stadio di Bergamo, and no individual – no matter how good he is – is more important than the collective. Atalanta, unlike their upcoming opponents, are more than the sum of their parts thanks to Gasperini’s astute coaching and a clearly defined style of play with and without the ball.
Atalanta are an ambitious, front-foot team who always look to impose themselves on the game. They show little respect for names and will not be intimidated by a trip to Old Trafford. This is a team that has the ability and the mentality to take the ball away from Manchester United, and the home crowd could potentially grow frustrated if they perceive the hosts to be playing too passively by contrast.
Atalanta also score plenty of goals. They have been shut out by just one opponent across Serie A and the Champions League so far this season. Gasperini’s side were the top scorers in Italy last term, finding the net 90 times. A United defense that will be without Raphael Varane, one of their first-choice center-backs, will be severely tested.
Yet the Red Devils have plenty of firepower of their own in the form of Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Mason Greenwood. If the game gets stretched at any stage, United’s speed in transition could be decisive. They are also in a vulnerable position in the group and will take risks in order to try and pick up all three points. That, coupled with their lack of control and Atalanta’s own quality, means it makes sense to back over 3.5 goals on Wednesday.
|Manchester United vs Atalanta Information
|Manchester United vs Atalanta
|Old Trafford, Manchester, England
|Wednesday, 20 October 2021, 15.00 PM EDT
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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