x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

United are a class apart

On Wednesday, Manchester United versus Wolfsburg pitted the English champions against their German counterparts. There, however, the similarities end.

"Football," said the former England captain Gary Lineker, "is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans always win." It was a nice theory, but one which the Champions League has rather disproved. It would have been less memorable, but somewhat truer, had Lineker said ... "and at the end, the Germans sometimes get out of the group stage." That is the new ambition - to qualify, rather than to conquer. Europe's economic powerhouse has not provided a semi-finalist since Bayer Leverkusen were defeated in 2002.

On Wednesday, Manchester United versus Wolfsburg pitted the English champions against their German counterparts. There, however, the similarities end. United's past, incorporating 18 English league titles and three European Cups, has been well documented. Wolfsburg, in contrast, were promoted to the Bundesliga as recently as 1997, winning it for the first time this year. Sir Alex Ferguson said: "They pulled off one of the most incredible feats in German football. Wolfsburg have come from nowhere to gatecrash the Bundesliga's elite and remind me of my days at Aberdeen when we broke the Glasgow stranglehold on Scottish football."

Despite Wolfsburg's narrow 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford, that only served to emphasise to serve how it is a different era in Germany. There is no governing cartel in the enduringly unpredictable Bundesliga, where eight different clubs have at least one top-four finish in the past four seasons, unlike in the more rigid Premier League. Like Ferguson's Aberdeen, astute management and an eye for a bargain accounts for their rise. Indeed, the Wolfsburg strikers, Edin Dzeko and Grafite, who mustered a combined total of 71 goals last season, were acquired for just 12 million euros.

Yet while there is a school of thought that Ferguson's Aberdeen, who defeated Bayern Munich and Real Madrid en route to winning the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1983, were the finest team on the continent that season, no such claim could be made on Wolfsburg's behalf. Provincial clubs can only progress so far now. If United represent the aristocracy and Wolfsburg the upwardly-mobile, the smaller club's place in the pecking order is nonetheless apparent to their manager.

The impressive Dzeko, who headed Wolfsburg into a surprise lead, has caught the eye of AC Milan, among others, and Armin Veh said: "He created problems for the defenders, mainly through his excellent technique and pace. At the age of 23, he is bound to be of interest to other clubs." A decade ago, United were accustomed to duelling with Bayern and Borussia Dortmund as equals. Now a shift in the balance of power has changed the equation.

United, despite their summer exits, still felt sufficiently confident to change their goalkeeper, and name Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Dimitar Berbatov on the bench, although the latter pair were required. An entertaining encounter was decided by Michael Carrick with 12 minutes remaining. The match-winner said: "Wolfsburg are a good side and they have got some big threats." The biggest were the bruising pair of Dzeko and Grafite. Zvjezdan Misimovic, offered greater subtlety at the head of a diamond midfield, a formation that suggests they should be able to finish ahead of CSKA Moscow and Besiktas and qualify for the last 16.

"I have ambition to go further," said Veh. His club have travelled a considerable distance already, but now there are appear limits on the journeys sides such as Wolfsburg can make. @Email:rjolly@thenational.ae