NEWS EDITOR SPORT
THE battle to lift the Europa League trophy in Budapest on 31 May has been joined by eight fresh clubs this week. Tonight, Manchester United and Arsenal will be playing their last group matches. However, although they lost to PSV last week, Arsenal looks a better side.
The sides who finished third in their Champions League groups have switched to the competition, which is in its 14th season after being renamed from the UEFA Cup.
Tonight, Manchester United, according to the Club’s official page needs at least a two-goal victory this evening (Thursday) to beat Real Sociedad to top spot in Group E.
Otherwise, they will be paired with one of the eight sides in a play-off, with the draw taking place on Monday around midday, in Switzerland.
So who are the eight sides entering the competition?
Manchester United’s manager Erik ten Hag’s former club and, of course, the same is also true of Lisandro Martinez, Christian Eriksen, Donny van de Beek and Antony. We met the Amsterdam giants in the 2017 final, winning 2-0 in Stockholm.
The Dutch champions finished behind Napoli and Liverpool in Group A but six points clear of bottom side Rangers.
It was something of a surprise that the Catalan club were knocked out of the premier competition with a game to spare, following Internazionale’s win over Viktoria Plzen. Bayern Munich were the runaway group winners after posting a 100 per cent record.
Manchester united’s last clash with the Nou Camp outfit came in the 2019 Champions League quarter-finals but Xavi’s men did play in the Europa League last term, going out to eventual winners Eintracht Frankfurt at the last-eight stage.
The Bundesliga side are currently managed by former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso and remained in Europe with a third-placed Group B finish, sensationally knocking Atletico Madrid out altogether. A goalless draw with Club Brugge proved enough, with Atleti losing 2-1 at pool winners Porto.
Manchester United are unbeaten in six meetings with the German club, including an outstanding 5-0 away triumph in 2013, although they did knock us out of the Champions League on away goals in the 2002 semi-final.
Manchester Unitex have had some famous clashes with the Old Lady in the past, including the 1999 Champions League semi-finals, and we won at the Allianz Stadium in 2019.
The Turin giants, Cristiano Ronaldo’s former club, have Angel Di Maria and the currently injured Paul Pogba in their ranks but finished a long way behind Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain in Group H (11 points) and narrowly edged out Maccabi Haifa for third spot.
The Austrian champions have yet to play United in a competitive fixture and they competed well in Group E before being well beaten by AC Milan on the final matchday (4-0) and finished below Chelsea and the Italian side in the table.
Salzburg are currently two points clear of Sturm Graz at the top of their domestic league.
Familiar foes for the Reds, who got the better of Manchester United in the 2018 Champions League round of 16 and in the 2020 semi-final, with Luuk De Jong scoring the winner, behind closed doors, in Cologne after Bruno Fernandes’s opener was cancelled out by Suso.
Sevilla saw off FC Copenhagen for the third spot in Group G, with Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund qualifying for the knockout stages.
The Ukrainians have performed so well, given the backdrop of the ongoing war in their homeland, but a heavy 4-0 home reverse to RB Leipzig ended Group F in disappointing fashion.
Real Madrid and the Bundesliga outfit progressed, with Celtic finishing bottom. Manchester United last met Shakhtar in 2013/14 but they are staging their home European matches in Warsaw at the moment.
The Lisbon side, another of Ronaldo’s ex-teams, were unable to join compatriots Benfica and Porto in the next stage of the Champions League, with both those teams winning their respective groups.
Sporting finished behind Tottenham and Eintracht Frankfurt in probably the most exciting group, with Marseille missing out on European football in the first part of next year altogether, following Spurs’ late winner in France. Manchester have played the club four times in competitive fixtures (1964 and 2007) and who can forget the friendly when we opened their Jose Alvalade stadium?