After our shock exit out of the Champions League group stages, Thursday night football is back… And we’re not very excited about it.
Our Champions League campaign was a rather short-lived one this season. We fought earnestly towards the back-end of last season to make sure we landed our spot in the Top 4 and were granted Champions League football. I remember the last day of the season so clearly; every Manchester United fan let out a sigh of relief and toasted a beer to 3rd place in the Premier League, excited to see what our team could accomplish in Europe. 7 weeks later, ‘Europe’ had changed to ‘Europa’ as we came crashing out of the group stages after an extremely strong start. As disappointing as it was, our focus now shifts to the Europa League, potentially our biggest chance of getting a trophy this season, and the all-important Champions League qualification next season. With our dip in form in the Premier League, the race for Top 4 is once again going to be a tight one, so this could be the easiest route forwards to the Champions League – IF we take it seriously.
Going into the Round of 32, Manchester United have been deemed favourites to win the competition, though the first game against La Liga side Real Sociedad is set to be one of the more difficult fixtures. When the draw took place in December, Real Sociedad were top of the Spanish league but their recent dip in form has taken them to a comfortable 5th place.
Due to the pandemic and travel restrictions implemented in Spain, Real Sociedad’s ‘home’ leg is now being played at Juventus’ Allianz Stadium in the Italian city of Turin – which could prove to be a promising advantage for United across the two legs.
Manchester United will be wanting to leave results of the past two weeks in the Premier League back in the UK and wipe the slate clean for the Europa League. The game against West Brom was nothing short of uninspiring, flat and lacked one thing – a desire to create. Inevitably, like a few of our games this season, it was only in the final 15 minutes of the game that United put their foot on the gas but by that point, it was too late. This is something that we cannot afford to do tonight, despite the game being played over two legs.
Many fans have been dreading this game, due to its looming reminder of our fall from grace from the Champions League, with some fans declaring that they’d rather not be involved in the competition at all (a rather pessimistic view if you ask me). However, this could be our best chances of winning our first trophy in 4 years.
But how is Ole going to line up his Reds in Europe?
Starting XI prediction:
With Donny van de Beek and Edinson Cavani unable to travel due to muscle injuries and question marks placed above Scott McTominay and Anthony Martial’s due to knocks picked up, I’ve had to make some changes to my original Starting XI prediction. Two of our most hopeful younger talents, Amad Diallo and Shola Shoretire, have travelled to Italy and if all goes to plan in the first half, I’d like to see them make their first-team debuts in the second and add a fresh spark to the team dynamic.
If I could choose to make only one substitution from the West Brom game, it would be Eric Bailly in for Lindelof. As captain, I think Maguire’s place in the team is solidified and any changes around the CB pairings will be made around him as opposed to Lindelof. In the FA Cup tie against West Ham, Telles proved to be an impressive alternative to Luke Shaw at LB and was the main creator in the first half. With the intense schedule this season, Solskjaer will no doubt need to rotate the squad in either this game or against Newcastle on Sunday, but I’d like to see Telles in the Starting XI tonight.
Though his fitness is uncertain, if McTominay can play, I’d like to see him in the midfield alongside Matic. Originally, I would’ve liked to have seen a McTominay/Van de Beek combination, but as the second choice, I believe Matic will allow for McTominay to press further up the pitch and unleash a lethal strike if we need one. If McTominay ends up being unable to play due to injury, I’d expect to see Fred next to Matic.
Although I’ve been underwhelmed by Rashford and his decision making in the last few games, there are few alternatives available to replace him with unless he opts for pace in the form of Dan James. I would like to see him resort back to the basics (eyes on the goal and taking a shot) rather than performing an excessive amount of step-overs before eventually becoming dispossessed. We all know we’d be lost if we didn’t have our Portuguese Magnifico, Bruno Fernandes in our team. His work rate is second to none, and although he hasn’t played in a while, I’d like to see Juan Mata accompany him upfront. With a lack of creativity flowing through the team, having an extra player on the pitch who is both intelligent-minded and creative should give United that extra boost when it comes to creating and taking chances.
‘Starboy’ Mason Greenwood signed a new deal this week, keeping him at United until 2025. As soon as he came on against West Brom on Sunday, the whole game shifted and he became our most dangerous player, proving that he should be one of the first names on the Starting sheet. With the buzz surrounding him and spotlight shining on him this week, I think he’s the perfect player to fill in for Cavani in the Number 9 position.
On paper, we should win this game easily, no matter which players make the Starting XI. But I’ve said that in the previous few games and been proven wrong by the team’s performance. The key to a win in this game in mentality. There’s no time for slow starts, lack of creativity, defensive errors or having possession but not doing anything with it. We need to be strong, we need to be confident and we need to play like Manchester United. If we do that, I can see the first leg ending 2-0 in favour of Manchester United.
Let me know your score predictions in the comments and how you’re feeling about being back in the Europa League.