Manchester United will make their return to the Champions League with a play-off round encounter against Belgian side Club Brugge at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
After a first season out of the competition in 19 years, United have been led back by Louis van Gaal, who won the Champions League with a brilliant, young Ajax team in 1995 and took Bayern Munich to the final in 2010. Fourth in the Premier League last season, United have opened the new campaign with 1-0 wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa, and Juan Mata believes Friday's victory at Villa Park showed the team's readiness.
"I think we can improve, but six points from six points is a very good start for us and now we have a lot of confidence ahead of the Champions League play-off," the Spanish midfielder told MUTV. "The clean sheet is a very positive factor. We're talking about having new players at the back and they're doing great as well."
It is a year and four months since United last played in the Champions League, losing to Bayern in the quarter-finals in April 2014, and it says much about the profound change the club has undergone since then that only four of the players who played in the 3-1 second-leg defeat in Munich are likely to line up against Club Brugge. Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck have left the club, while David Moyes is no longer in the dug-out, having been sacked 13 days after that defeat.
Of those who made it onto the pitch against Bayern that remain, Phil Jones is currently sidelined with thrombosis, Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez are out of favour and goalkeeper David de Gea has been removed from the team after becoming unsettled by Real Madrid's interest.
That leaves Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling, Michael Carrick and Adnan Januzaj, a late substitute at the Allianz Arena, who came in from the cold to score the winner at Villa after disappearing from view in Van Gaal's first season. Januzaj is one of two Belgian players in Van Gaal's squad alongside Marouane Fellaini, who is serving a three-match domestic suspension but could feature on Tuesday.
De Sutter swansong
Having marked his return with a goal, Januzaj will hope to hold onto his place at number 10 in support of Rooney, although van Gaal expressed reservations about his use of the ball against Tim Sherwood's side. Memphis Depay, the £25 million ($39.1 million, 35.2 million euros) signing from PSV Eindhoven, was also singled out for criticism by the manager, but Mata has backed the Dutch international, who squandered an excellent late chance against Villa, to come good.
"The good thing is that he is having the chances," said Mata, a European champion with Chelsea in 2012. "He's getting in the position to have the chances, but the goals will come for him. I think he will score for us very soon."
While United contested three Champions League finals between 2008 and 2011, winning one, Club Brugge are the only Belgian club to have reached the final, losing 0-1 to Liverpool at Wembley in 1978.
Michel Preud'homme's side finished top of the table in Belgium last season, but lost out to Gent in the ensuing championship play-off. For former Belgium striker Tom De Sutter, the tie against United, which concludes on August 26, will serve as a swansong prior to his departure for Turkish side Bursaspor.
Club Brugge, who last played in the group phase in 2005, have made a modest start to the season, winning twice, drawing once and losing once, and Preud'homme is concerned that his team have been playing too much sideways football. "There's not enough tempo or depth," said the former Belgium goalkeeper, whose team beat Panathinaikos 4-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round.
"Playing like this, it will be impossible to trouble Manchester."