Hectic Christmas schedule sets the tone for Ralf Rangnick reign as Man United boss

Champions League qualification secured but the real test for Rangnick begins now in less glamorous locations
Hectic Christmas schedule sets the tone for Ralf Rangnick reign as Man United boss

Manchester United's Aaron Wan-Bissaka lies injured on the floor during the UEFA Champions League match 

Man United's Champions League qualification was already secured before a routine draw against Young Boys, in which some of the club’s teenagers provided hope for the future, but new coach Ralf Rangnick knows it is the next three hectic weeks of Christmas football which could set the tone for his tenure.

The German, who has been tasked with turning United’s fortunes around both on and off the pitch, has made a steady unbeaten start and had the luxury of handing debuts to several youth team players at Old Trafford — so that’s one box ticked. in terms of legacy.

United also go into Monday’s draw as a seeded team having finished top of their group and the Champions League may well prove to be a serious target as they bid to recreate some of their lost aura since Alex Ferguson retired back in 2013.

But the real test for Rangnick begins now in less glamorous locations.

United head for Norwich on Saturday and Brentford on Tuesday, before completing December with games against Brighton, Newcastle, and Burnley. It’s a run of winnable fixtures which provides a huge opportunity to turn a corner in time for 2022, but which also lays down a series of banana skins.

Manchester United's Mason Greenwood (right) celebrates scoring
Manchester United's Mason Greenwood (right) celebrates scoring

By January 3, when Wolves arrive at Old Trafford, you suspect Rangnick will either be a United hero in the making or a short-term fix that didn’t work, given the pace at which United managers are judged these days.

That’s unfair of course, given the size of the task. But there were signs of the depth of United’s talent against Young Boys and further encouragement that Europe could be something to cling to.

In a hugely difficult season, in which United fans have been desperately looking for rays of hope, the Champions League has provided a dream to cling to — and they only have to look at poor old Barcelona to know how important that is.

On a day when Barca bowed out following a drubbing at Bayern, United’s match against Young Boys was stress free as Rangnick took the opportunity to look at many of his second string — including debutants Charlie Savage, the 18-year-old son of Robbie Savage, Teden Mengi, 19, and Zidane Iqbal, 18.

The German coach will be judged primarily on where United finish in the Premier League of course, and how he turns around their playing style, but there’s something about this season’s European football campaign which has the Stretford End excited.

Progress so far has largely been down to a veteran rather than a youngster, with Cristiano Ronaldo (who was rested for this tie) the saviour when it really mattered.

The journey started badly, with a 2-1 away defeat to Young Boys, but since then the Red Devils have found a way through by hook or crook, reaching tonight’s match already in the last-16 with one to play. Memories include a last-minute winner from Ronaldo against Villarreal at Old Trafford, a stunning comeback from 0-2 to 3-2 against Atalanta at home (Ronaldo again with a late strike) and a 2-2 draw away in Italy when, you guessed it, CR7 scored a late, late equaliser.

Progress was sealed with an impressive 2-0 win in Spain under caretaker manager Michael Carrick, with Ronaldo on the scoresheet but Jadon Sancho scoring what seems to be a traditional last-minute effort to seal the victory.

Young Boys' Fabian Rieder scores their side's first goal
Young Boys' Fabian Rieder scores their side's first goal

Now, having navigated this tie against Young Boys safely, there are opportunities ahead.

A more energetic, high-pressing style was unveiled against Crystal Palace last weekend to high acclaim, and the rest test will be whether that style survives the Christmas schedule. But at least United have a last 16 tie to look forward to next year, and that’s not something that the Stretford End should take for granted. United have reached the last 16 on only three occasions since Ferguson retired in 2013, before this campaign.

That’s a record which hast to be put right in the coming years, and Rangnick must smell a real opportunity to make a mark at a time when expectation has hit rock bottom and the club is crying out for new heroes.

The prospect of a Ronaldo v Messi face-off against PSG is still possible, with the French giants unseeded after finishing behind Man City in Group A, whilst Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and Chelsea also failed to claim top spot.

Mason Greenwood, who is still only 21, scored the opening goal with a finish of real quality, and with United naming six youth teamers on the bench,, there was a buzz in the crowd despite Ronaldo’s absence — at least until it all faded away late in the game.

It didn’t all go to plan, of course. An all-too-familiar defensive lapse allowed Fabian Rieder to equalise before half time, which means United haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last five Champions League group stage matches at Old Trafford — something Rangnick will have to tackle as a priority.

The focus, now, however, is five must-win Premier League games. Only then will we know how quickly the Rangnick revolution can unfold.

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