Manchester United could not have hoped for a worse Europa League knockout draw as they’ll have to navigate a blockbuster play-off tie against Barcelona.
Since an underwhelming 1-0 home defeat to Real Sociedad in a curtain-raising Group E fixture at Old Trafford, Erik ten Hag’s men have gone from strength to strength in Europe.
The Red Devils went into overdrive following a slow European start, winning five Europa League matches in succession, including a 1-0 victory in San Sebastian on the final matchday.
However, it proved insufficient to fire Man Utd past Sociedad in the Group E standings, condemning them to a second-place finish and a mouth-watering play-off tie against star-studded Barcelona.
Unable to advance straight into the round of 16 as runners-up, they knew they would have to lock horns with one of the eight sides who finished third in their Champions League groups to make it to the last 16.
Frustratingly for the Premier League top-four hopefuls, Monday’s draw was anything but pleasant, pitting them against Xavi Hernandez’s Barcelona, who finished third in the so-called ‘group of death.’
It’s not all lost for Man Utd, though, as the Catalans are no longer the force to be reckoned with as they used to be during the glory days of Lionel Messi, as witnessed by back-to-back Champions League group-stage eliminations.
While the odds may be stacked against the Red Devils in this clash of the European titans, ten Hag has every reason to believe in United’s chances of leaving Barca in their wake.
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The Man Utd faithful will at least get to see long-term target Frenkie de Jong first-hand while his compatriot Memphis Depay braces himself for a revenge-poised reunion with the Old Trafford hierarchy.
Unless Barcelona get rid of Depay in the January transfer window, the former United flop will be back at the Theatre of Dreams as a foe come the springtime Europa League fixtures.
Pity that a nightmare draw brought the Blaugrana into the Red Devils’ path this early, considering ten Hag sees Europe’s second-tier competition as a perfect alternate route to reach next season’s Champions League.
Among other sides Man Utd could have faced in the Europa League play-off round, La Liga bottom-half strugglers Sevilla and perennial Austrian champions RB Salzburg would have been the best possible opponents.
There’s no doubt Man Utd would’ve wanted to avoid Juventus, currently in the midst of a mini-revival, and seasonal European campaigners Ajax, who experienced a woeful Champions League journey in Group A.
Bayer Leverkusen, Shakhtar Donetsk and Sporting CP are the three remaining teams to have switched over from the Champions League group stages, all of which would’ve offered far better prospects to United.
However, it’s what it is and Man Utd will have to defy history if they’re to maintain their Europa League season, knowing Barcelona have thumped them one too many times over the past 15 years.
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