Stakes raised as Manchester clubs look to avoid shock setbacks

The Manchester giants try to get their campaigns back on track Wednesday as the UEFA Champions League group stage moves on with an early game in tiny Astana, Kazakhstan followed by cameos from some of Europe’s grandest teams.

Most eyes will be focused on the two England vs. Germany matchups; Manchester United host Wolfsburg (live, FS1, FOX Sports Go, 2 p.m. ET) while a limping and wounded Manchester City will travel to Borussia Moenchegladbach (live, FS2, FOX Sports Go, 2 p.m. ET). The stakes are high for both English teams as a second consecutive loss would greatly imperil their chances of advancing.

For United, the task is arguably more difficult. Wolfsburg is a dangerous and deep team that is capable of pushing opponents all over the pitch. While they may be light on European experience, players like Julian Draxler — who scored the only goal in their 1-0 win over CSKA Moscow on Matchday One — Max Kruse and Bas Dost are genuinely fine players and they can hurt you quite badly.

But Wolfsburg can also be overwhelmed. Robert Lewandowski showed how fragile their backline can be with a five-goal performance a week ago, with Diego Benaglio and Dante left as mere spectators. And expensive new boy Andre Schurrle has not endeared himself to the faithful with a series of lackluster performances that have earned him the ire of manager Dieter Hecking. Hecking told German TV station Sport1 that Schurrle "broods too much" and was not living up to expectations.

United, on the other hand, appear to be finally coming good. They returned to the top of the Premier League for the first time since 2013 this weekend thanks to another stumble from Manchester City. While no one considers them a particularly attractive team, the Red Devils are winning games. Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial have been inspired signings while David De Gea’s return to the nets has immediately shored up what had been a dreadful defense.

United’s problem — as seen on the weekend against a dreadful Sunderland side — is that they take a long time to open sides up. PSV punished them for that on Matchday One, though that result also viewed in the context of the shocking injury Luke Shaw suffered during the game. On Wednesday, United will be under far more pressure from a German side that likes to go forward and is pretty good about cleaning up possession in midfield.

Reeling City should have it a bit easier. Gladbach, for the lack of a better word, are terrible. Sevilla pasted them two weeks ago after the Germans conceded not one but three penalties in the game and lost 3-0. They have also won just two games this year in the Bundesliga, and manager Lucian Favre stepped down ten days ago, conceding defeat. Andre Schubert has two wins under his belt since then but despite having some decent talent on paper, there’s little argument that this team is not producing.

Even with Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure all likely absent for City with injuries, this should be an easy road game. But nothing is ever easy for this team, which has made such a fetish of the Champions League that every reversal psychologically overwhelms this team. Their opening day loss to Juventus sent them into a spiral, losing a gritty game to West Ham and being getting blown out by Tottenham this past weekend. A team that once looked as if they would run away with the Premier League now instead looks quite vulnerable.

Fact is, all the pressure in this game in squarely on City. Gladbach are the cannon fodder of this group, so the Germans can just go out and play their game. The English giants, on the other hand, are under tremendous pressure to get a result and in years past, that pressure has often led to damaging losses.

A key game also takes place in Ukraine where Shakhtar Donetsk look to right the ship against mighty Paris Saint-Germain (live, FOX Sports Go, 2 p.m. ET). Blown out 4-0 at the Bernabeu by Real Madrid, they now get the chance to host a red-hot PSG side that has yet to lose a game this year. The French giants blew out tiny Malmo in their first game, and with little true competition in Ligue 1, their focus is almost exclusively on Europe this season. For their part, Shakhtar must stop the rot here at home and pick up points if they have any hope of staying in the Champions League this season.

There’s also an intriguing matchup in Italy where sagging Juventus host Sevilla (live, FOX Sports Go, 2 p.m. ET). Off to a dreadful start in Serie A, Juve took out City in their first game and now look to repeat the feat against the reigning Europa League champs. Sevilla — who are equally poor this year in La Liga — have been dominant in European play over the past two seasons, and this should be an interesting tussle, with the more attack-minded Spaniards going up against a defend and counter Old Lady.