Wednesday 12 August 2020

United set for Spanish inquisition in Europa League semis

We now know Manchester United will face Sevilla of La Liga in the last four of the Europa League on Sunday.

The side from Andalusia set up a tie with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds after a narrow but dominant, more comfortable than it sounds over the dark horses of our divisional rivals Wolves.
Raul Jimenez had a penalty saved for Nuno Espirito Santo's side but the Spanish side took control with 75% of the ball and 17 shots on target. Their winning goal did not arrive until the closing moments, though, when Lucas Ocampos headed in on 88 minutes. It sent the Champions League-bound Rojiblancos into the semi final against United, which will take place on Sunday in Cologne. 

Sevilla are record winners of this competition, lifting the Europa League on five occasions, more than any other team. They are to this competition what Real Madrid are to the Champions League. Sevilla have now won 24 of their last 25 Europa League knockout ties, each against different opponents - the Czechs of Slavia Prague the only side to stop them, way back in 2013. Sevilla sacked their coach Pablo Machin in the immediate aftermath of that one defeat. 

With all due respect to Wolves, I wanted us to get Sevilla as it will feel like a proper European tie, they are better than Wolves and our games against the men from Molineux are always drab, sterile, boring affairs. Then there's the small matter of revenge. 

We hardly need reminding of what happened the last time we played these opponents - for many, it was the straw that finally broke the camel's back under Jose Mourinho. United's dismal Champions League KO at the hands of the rank outsiders proved the beginning of the end for Mourinho - he lost control that night and would never get it back. It was then that the cracks began to show, his relationship with the fans and his players started to go downhill, and he forever became synonymous with the man responsible for the worst night in United's proud and illustrious European history.

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It was night of desperate disappointment less than a year after the club had won a first Europa League title. But United have come a long way since then - we're purring now, and avenging that dismal night of 2018 would be a pleasing subplot and a chance to draw a line in the sand to show how far we've progressed since that nadir. 

The combatants may be the same, but the cast list is very different. Sevilla have only three players from that night - Sergio Escudero, Ever Banega and Franco Vazquez - still on their books and are now managed by former Real Madrid and Spain boss Julen Lopetegui. Vincenzo Montella is now out of work and Wissam Ben Yedder, chief orchestrator of United's downfall, plies his trade for Monaco.

But Sevilla are a very different, and better, proposition, now. The club will be back in the Champions League next season and boast the second best back line in La Liga. Defensively solid and a dangerous side going forward - mainly through top scorer Ocampos - they will pose a difficult examination for Solskjaer's men. Former Man City pair Jesus Navas and Fernando Reges are two names familiar to English fans, whilst Ibrahim Amadou spent the 2019-20 season on loan at relegated Norwich. Ex-Liverpool flop Suso and former Newcastle loanee Luuk de Jong also currently play for the La Liga club. 

But let's not forget that United have a decent record against stronger opponents. There was only one defeat in ten against the top six last term, and even that came against the dominant champions of Liverpool. So it might suit us and will carry the feel of a genuine heavyweight contest, an exciting semi final that will bring out the best in our players. Apart from Inter, Sevilla are the best remaining team in the tournament so knocking them out would be a huge feather in United's cap.

Speaking of Inter, Antonio Conte's side will face Shakhtar Donetsk in the other semi final in Dusseldorf, a night after United take on Sevilla. Both ties will again be played over a single, one off fixture. 

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