On Wednesday, Manchester United will face off against Valencia in the final round of Champions League fixtures in Group H. Thanks to Fellaini’s late winner in their last match against Young Boys, United enter the match already assured of at least second place in the group. This, along with a crucial match against Liverpool on Sunday, has led certain supporters to advocate for playing a weakened team in their match against Valencia. However, given the impact of finishing first over second and the way United’s season has gone so far, I believe that would be a major mistake.
Unlike in some previous seasons, coming first in the group this year offers a large advantage from finishing second. If United finish second in the group, they will likely have six potential opponents in the first knockout stage: Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Porto, Atletico Madrid, and Paris Saint-Germain. I would probably consider United slight favorites against Porto. However, in the over 80% chance that they would draw one of the teams other than Porto, then a second straight round of 16 exit would be most likely.
On the other hand, finishing first offers a much weaker group of opponents. As things stand, United’s potential opposition should they win the group would be one of Ajax, Roma, Dortmund, Schalke, Lyon, and potentially Inter and Napoli. Of those teams, the only one who United would be clear underdogs against is Napoli, who are unlikely to even finish second. Matchups such as Dortmund or Roma would certainly be difficult as well, but winning the group would clearly put United in a great position to reach their first quarterfinal in five years.
Even for those who see the value in winning the group, some might still write the match off given Juventus’ two point lead and the assumption that they will win their match. While Juve are certainly favorites to beat Young Boys, that result is far from a guarantee. Considering how close Young Boys came to getting a draw at Old Trafford and the possibility of complacency or fatigue taking a toll on the Italian side, a draw is certainly not out of the question. Furthermore, United’s head to head advantage over Juventus means that they will top their group if they win their match and Juve draws or loses theirs.
Given the way their season has gone domestically so far, Manchester United are in certainly no position to write off a potentially huge match for them in the Champions League. Already out of the League Cup, title race, and potentially 10+ points off the top four by the end of next weekend, the idea of not prioritizing the Champions League makes no sense. While it’s true that Juventus are more likely than not to win in Switzerland, the importance of winning the group means that this match in Valencia on Wednesday could well end up being one of the most important remaining in Manchester United’s season.