Today’s Europa League Knockout Round Play-offs

Barcelona welcome Manchester United in Europa League blockbuster

A blockbuster encounter between two European juggernauts takes place a Camp Nou on Thursday night as Barcelona play host to Manchester United in the first leg of their Europa League playoff.

The two teams have previously etched their names into Champions League folklore, but their latest meeting over two legs will be their first in Europe’s secondary club competition.

Barcelona enter the Europa League knockout rounds for the second successive season after they could only finish third in their Champions League group earlier this season behind Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.

While five-time Champions League winners Barcelona would prefer to be competing in Europe’s premier club competition, the prospect of becoming Europa League champions for the first time is sure to motivate Xavi and co – who have already won the Spanish Super Cup this year – as they attempt to balance their domestic duties with a two-legged clash against Man United.

On the other hand, Man United have had to get used to the rigours of Europa League football, competing in the competition on six occasions in the last 12 seasons.

Man United are still competing on all fronts this season, with a EFL Cup final clash against Newcastle United to come later this month and a FA Cup fifth-round tie with West Ham United in March, while they are in the EPL top four. United’s focus now shifts to Thursday’s trip to Catalonia as they endeavour to win their first-ever game against Barcelona at Camp Nou at the fifth time of asking.

Barcelona are right to feel optimistic heading into Thursday’s battle, but their impressive unbeaten run and defensive exploits are set to be put to the test by a Man United outfit who continue to go from strength to strength under Ten Hag.



Crisis-hit Juventus host high-flying Nantes

Juventus players

Europa League returns with Juventus welcoming Nantes to Turin for the first leg of the teams’ playoff round tie. With a place in the last 16 at stake, the crisis-hit Italian giants will want to take a lead to France, but their visitors are enjoying a purple patch at the moment, having lost just one of their last seven Ligue 1 games.

Deducted 15 points due to financial indiscretions, Juve subsequently suffered their second defeat of the season to promoted Monza, and embattled coach Max Allegri was even muttering darkly about a potential fight against relegation.

With three straight wins in league and cup to follow, though – and Juventus are now into the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia – the picture has somewhat brightened in Turin, and the 36-time Scudetto winners are up to ninth following a 1-0 victory over Fiorentina last weekend.

Nantes join Juventus in boasting a good recent record, and Antoine Kombouare‘s side will fear no-one in the context of their domestic form. While goals have proved hard to come by this season, a mere two have been conceded since the winter break, and a total of eight clean sheets in Ligue 1 demonstrates their resilience at the other end.

The odd aberration aside, Juventus give very little away at the back, while Nantes are hardly prolific, for all their much-improved form. A low-scoring encounter should ensue, and a one-goal margin of victory for the Old Lady would keep the tie finely balanced ahead of next week’s second leg.



Red Bull Salzburg, Roma clash in first leg of playoff tie

Tammy Abraham, Roma

Red Bull Salzburg host Roma in the first leg of the teams’ playoff round tie. As last year’s inaugural Europa Conference League winners, Jose Mourinhos side also boast plenty of recent experience at the sharp end of continental competition, while Mourinho himself has lifted the Europa League trophy with both Porto (2003) and Manchester United (2017) during an illustrious coaching career.

Finishing in Italy’s top four come June will be Mourinho’s primary aim for the rest of this season, but the wily tactician cannot resist the glint of silverware and will know that winning the Europa League would secure Champions League football in any case.

With a place in the last 16 at stake, the Austrian champions will want to take a lead to Rome next week, but their visitors are enjoying some fine form domestically and lifted the Europa Conference League title last term.

This may be Red Bull Salzburg first meeting with Roma, but the Giallorossi will be the eighth different Italian side that Austria’s dominant force have faced in Europe to date. Indeed, they have twice beaten Roma’s city rivals Lazio on home soil in the past – in 2009 and 2018.

If precedent is any guide, however, then surely Thursday’s visitors have the edge ahead of kickoff, as Roma are undefeated in three previous competitive fixtures in Austria.

Both runners-up in the Europa League’s predecessor – the UEFA Cup – during the 1990s, these clubs boast significant European pedigree and are seemingly well-matched.

Yet, Roma’s recent form has shown they can grind out results where in the past they would have folded, so the visitors can return to Italy on level terms ahead of the second leg.



Sevilla and PSV Eindhoven square off in Spain

Erik Lamela, Sevilla

Sevilla and PSV Eindhoven do battle in Spain on Thursday as both clubs square off in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie. Having moved four points clear of the relegation zone, everyone associated with Sevilla are beginning to breathe a little easier, but that is not to say that they do not need to keep pushing under Jorge Sampaoli.

Sevilla have been long-term fixtures in European competition and they have now reached a point where they sit eight points adrift of seventh place in Spain’s top flight.

That is a consequence of four victories coming from their most recent six league games, each of those wins coming at Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan and one of the two defeats occurring at Barcelona.

At some stage, Sevilla’s away form will have to improve, but there appears to be growing momentum under Sampaoli ahead of a return to European duties.

PSV have been far from their usual selves in the Eredivisie this campaign, losing five of their 21 matches to only sit in fourth place, four points adrift of leaders Feyenoord.

Nevertheless, they have responded from letting slip a two-goal lead at the frontrunners to score nine times versus Emmen and FC Groningen in KNVB Beker and league games over the past week.

On paper and current form, this feels like an extremely well-matched tie, and Sevilla might continue their recent resurgence.



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