Manchester United will learn their Europa League knockout round play-off fate today (Monday afternoon) after failing to top Group E. Erik ten Hag’s side fell agonisingly short of automatic entry into the last 16 as Real Sociedad edged top spot by one goal, setting up a daunting tie in February.
Last season, UEFA scrapped the traditional round of 32 for the knockout play-off round, in which the eight third-place Champions League teams drop down to face the eight Europa League runner-ups. And this season, the pool of opposition entering from Europe’s elite competition will have made United keen to avoid it.
The Red Devils must clash with one of Ajax, Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus, Red Bull Salzburg, Sevilla, Shakhtar Donetsk or Sporting CP in an already-hectic schedule after the World Cup to progress into the last-16 draw on February 24.
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal await after finishing above PSV Eindhoven as Group A winners. And Express Sport has simulated the Europa League knockout play-off round, producing the nightmare scenario that stands in United’s way of joining them.
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Man Utd vs Barcelona
Having to enter the knockout play-off round was a disaster for United anyway due to the intense fixture demands to come as clubs recover from a month away for the World Cup. But after they finished third in their Champions League group for the second season running, two legs against Barcelona would make matters even worse.
The La Liga giants could bring Robert Lewandowski, Pedri and, after the transfer saga of the summer, Frenkie de Jong to Old Trafford in February. And while it would make for a stellar tie at such an early stage in the competition, it’s a prospect Ten Hag would likely very much want to avoid.
United are desperate to end their torrid trophy drought, last lifting silverware in the 2017 Europa League after defeating Ajax in the final. But they may also see the competition as their best chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League, with Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, Chelsea, Liverpool and even Brighton and Hove Albion currently battling for the final two Premier League top-four spots.
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