Manchester United return to Europa League action against Real Betis
With nightmares of their Anfield mauling still fresh in the memory, Manchester United return to Europa League action with the visit of Real Betis to Old Trafford for the first leg of their last-16 tie on Thursday night.
The Red Devils progressed past Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate in the knockout round playoffs, while Manuel Pellegrini’s crop beat Roma, HJK Helsinki and Ludogorets to top spot in Group C.
The highs of ending a six-year trophy drought and eliminating Barcelona from European competition paled into insignificance for Man United on Sunday afternoon, as a mortified Erik ten Hag witnessed the Red Devils suffer their worst defeat in Premier League history at the hands of a merciless Liverpool.
Prior to being destroyed by Liverpool, Man United had scored at least twice in 12 successive games in all competitions – their multiple-goal run at Old Trafford stands at an even better 14 games – and Ten Hag’s side can get straight back into the fans’ good books with a 20th unbeaten match in a row at the Theatre of Dreams here.
A familiar face returns to the northwest in the opposition dugout, as ex-Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini – who can expect a hostile welcome when he emerges from the Old Trafford tunnel – travels back to the UK with his side hitting form at the right time.
With a refreshed XI taking on a Fekir-less Real Betis side – who are not always adept at keeping things tight at the back – the stage is set for a confidence-rocked Man United to continue their Old Trafford excellence and return to winning ways.
Arsenal travel to the Portugal to clash with Sporting Lisbon
Resuming their quest for an elusive continental crown, Arsenal travel to the Estadio Jose Alvalade XXI for the first leg of their Europa League last-16 clash with Sporting Lisbon.
While Premier League glory is by no means a guarantee, it would take a catastrophic collapse for Arsenal to drop out of the top four – making success in the Europa League less of a priority than in previous years – but they have never been knocked out in the last 16 of Europe’s second-tier tournament and are no doubt growing restless for a slice of continental glory.
En route to the final in the 2018-19 season, Arsenal edged past Sporting 1-0 during the group stage in Portugal, and a subsequent goalless draw at the Emirates made it four games without a win or goal for the Portuguese giants against their London counterparts.
Arsenal would no doubt take advantage in normal circumstances, but a wealth of attacking injuries does not bode that well for Arteta’s side.
While the Gunners should not share the same fate as North London rivals Tottenham did on Sporting’s turf, they might have to be content with a draw before the two sides reconvene at the Emirates on March 16.
Roma, Real Sociedad contest first leg of Europa League last-16 tie
Both placed fourth in their respective league tables, Roma and Real Sociedad convene at Stadio Olimpico on Thursday, to contest the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie.
Last year’s Europa Conference League winners now aim to take another step towards more silverware, as they meet La Real for the first time ever in UEFA competition.
Roma have lost just two of their last 33 home matches in UEFA competition, winning on 24 occasions, although both defeats came against Spanish teams – to Real Madrid in 2018 and a 2-1 reverse against Real Betis in this term’s group phase. More recently, they have won seven of their last eight matches on home soil, so can be confident of setting up a first-leg lead to take to San Sebastian in seven days time.
Eliminated by RB Leipzig in last year’s knockout round playoffs, Real Sociedad’s furthest run in Europe’s second-tier tournament was as far as the quarter-finals in 1989, and Imanol Alguacil’s current crop will now aim to match that feat by beating Roma over two legs.
Roma have won only two of their last 15 competitive games against Spanish sides – losing 10 times in the process – but Jose Mourinho has changed the culture of the club. The veteran coach has claimed victory in 14 of his 16 Europa League home matches and knows how to get the job done – with La Real’s recent lack of goals also helping his cause.
Rejuvenated Juventus host upstarts Freiburg
Aiming to leave domestic troubles behind and take a step closer to some silverware, Juventus host Bundesliga upstarts Freiburg on Thursday night, in the Europa League’s last 16.
The teams convene in Turin for the first leg, with the hosts having lost at the weekend to fall further behind in Serie A – where they have already been docked 15 points – and their visitors riding high in the German top flight.
Not accustomed to midweek nights under the bright lights of Europe, Freiburg will not only encounter Juventus for the first time this week, Thursday’s clash at the Allianz Stadium will also mark their first competitive meeting with an Italian opponent.
One of just three teams to go undefeated through the group phase – winning four times in the process – the Black Forest club have featured only sporadically in either the UEFA Cup or Europa League, but are enjoying their best run this season.
Only Real Sociedad have conceded fewer goals than Freiburg’s three in the Europa League, and the latter also finished well clear of Juve’s recent victims Nantes in Group G during the autumn.
Juventus have not won a European trophy since 1996, and with a point to prove given recent events at the club, they should be clear-minded about their task. While Freiburg are far from pushovers, the Bianconeri possess far more individual quality and experience at this level, so can take a lead with them to Germany next week.