Following two days of greatness in Europe’s top-tier tournament, the UEFA Champions League, UEFA’s other two competitions have their turn to shine with the opening group games of the Europa League and Conference League.
When compared to the Champions League, the Europa League lacks the jazz and high-profile stars, yet it is just as unpredictable. Europe’s second-tier league promises to be a massive showdown, with some mouth-watering fixtures on the show and a few major clubs also taking part. The defending champions are Eintracht Frankfurt, and the Red Devils would want to have their name carved on the trophy at the end of the season.
Manchester United open their European fixtures with the Europa League group stage match versus Spanish team, Real Sociedad. Following a disappointing start to the season, Erik Ten Hag has seemingly found his perfect starting 11 and has hit the ground running with 4 wins in 4 games, two of which were versus Liverpool and Arsenal.
The Europa League is one of the best chances that Manchester United have for silverware this season having won their last trophy in 2017, while Real Sociedad will look to show a strong showing this time around. Both teams will engage in a strong match with United coming off the back of a 3-1 win over Arsenal and Sociedad playing in a close 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid.
Man United will now try to extend their flawless record of making it out of the Europa League group stage, and they have reached the semi-finals in each of their past three outings in the second-tier tournament, but Villarreal’s penalty prowess cost them the competition in 2021. Their European experience ended suddenly last season when they were eliminated in the last-16 of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid, but the Theatre of Dreams crowd will not be expecting Omonia or Sheriff Tiraspol to cause their side any problems later in Group E.
Continuing their habit of scoring one and no more than one goal in La Liga games this season, Real Sociedad did not let Alvaro Morata’s early opening goal dampen their spirits, drawing 1-1 with Diego Simeone’s side. Replacing Newcastle United’s new boy Alexander Isak with Umar Sadiq, who scored goal after goal for Almeria in the second division last year, paid immediate benefits, as the 25-year-old headed home the equaliser just 10 minutes after coming off the bench.
Taking seven points out of a possible 12 is a far from catastrophic start to the season for Imanol Alguacil’s side, whose two wins have both come away from home, although against Cadiz and Elche rather than 20-time national winners Man United. The 2022-23 season will be Sociedad’s third consecutive appearance in the Europa League group stage. They advanced to the knockout stages in 2020-21 and 2021-22, but their run ended in the last-32 stage last year when they were defeated by RB Leipzig.
Prior to that 5-4 aggregate defeat to Die Roten Bullen, Alguacil’s side were eliminated at the same stage by Manchester United in the 2020-21 competition, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer leading the Red Devils to a 4-0 triumph at the Allianz Stadium before a goalless draw in the second leg at Old Trafford.
Where and When?
Venue: Old Trafford.
Date: Thursday, 8th September 2022.
Time: 20:00 (BST).
Referee: Marco Di Bello.
Assistant referees: Fabiano Preti, Giorgio Peretti.
Fourth official: Giovanni Ayroldi.
VAR: Massimiliano Irrati.
Assistant VAR: Marco Guida.
Man United did not experience any significant injuries in their win over Arsenal, with Luke Shaw making the bench, but Anthony Martial and Facundo Pellistri remain out, as does Brandon Williams, who did not make the Europa League team either.
Donny van de Beek and Aaron Wan-Bissaka will need to be evaluated as the out-of-favour duo try to shake off injuries in time for the game, and rotation is likely for the hosts, with Martin Dubravka hoping to make his debut in goal.
Following their cautious withdrawals at the weekend, Lisandro Martinez and Marcus Rashford may not be risked, as Harry Maguire, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Casemiro look to force their way into the starting XI.
For the visitors, French centre-back Robin Le Normand has been ruled out with a stress fracture in his foot, while Mikel Oyarzabal, Martin Merquelanz, and Carlos Fernandez are also out.
Left-back Diego Rico was able to make the bench against Atletico as he recovers from a hamstring injury, while Aritz Elustondo might take Le Normand’s place in the middle of defence.
Following Sadiq’s goal off the bench last time out, Mohamed-Ali Cho and Alexander Sorloth will be fearful for their positions at the top of the attack, while David Silva is anticipated to assume the number 10 spot upon his return to Manchester.
English and Spanish football are fundamentally quite different with the former more intense and physical and the latter more technical and skilful. It will definitely be a well fought out contest but the recent form indicates a Manchester United win. The game will progress for the English giants just like every other game where they will look to dominate the ball but will struggle to create unless on the counter.
Manchester United might rest key players but Bruno Fernandes is expected to be a creative outlet for the team. With Rashford set to be rested for the match, his pace on the counter will be lacking and Fernandes along with the wingers and wing backs must do well to bring Ronaldo into the game.
The pressing, positioning, and occupation of gaps in the opposition’s half are the foundations of Real Sociedad’s success. The team prioritise a high defensive line while playing out of the back, due to the squad’s tactical brilliance and versatility. A large portion of their gameplay is one of the central midfielders dropping deep to form a back 3 as their fullbacks push forward to help out the forwards in attack.
It is quite a tricky game as although Sociedad’s defence is built to be broken by strong counter attacking teams, Ronaldo replacing Rashford will be a major block in the way Manchester United run at Sociedad’s defence. Bruno Fernandes and Fred will have an increased defensive role and Elanga and Antony will be expected to get in behind the Spanish defence.
Maguire is set to start the match and De Gea has rarely been proficient with his feet. That is probably Manchester United’s biggest defensive shortcoming that Sociedad will look to exploit and if they do so correctly, they stand a chance to get something meaningful out of the game.
Cristiano Ronaldo is still a Manchester United player, despite all of the transfer rumours floating around this summer. The Europa League is the ideal venue for him to demonstrate to Erik Ten Hag that he still has it at the age of 37.
The Portuguese striker may not be the player he once was, and he may not suit the current system, but he is still a leader on and off the field. Ronaldo will start the game versus Sociedad, and Ten Hag will rely on him to deliver.
This will be his first start in 4 games and he has looked a little rusty in all, courtesy of a missed pre-season but a match against Spanish oppositions, a league which he very well dominated is probably just want Ronaldo needs to open his account for the new season.
He will not be tasked with the ability to come deep and ask for the ball or even create a lot. In fact, his job would be to simply put the ball into the back of the net while the rest of the team do the dirty work. Although this is far from Ten Hag’s system, it is possibly an accommodation he will make for a player of Ronaldo’s calibre.
Raphael Varane has emerged as Ten Hag’s first choice centre back along with Martinez with Maguire and Lindelof suppressed on the bench. However, this match would see Maguire’s return to the squad and will make Varane’s job all the more important as despite all of Maguire’s qualities he is quite error-prone and is frankly invisible when a player manages to knock the ball past him.
Varane will not have the additional aerial responsibility he has been shouldering and the fact that he manages to compensate for both Martinez and Maguire’s shortcomings just proves what an important player he is to the squad. This time around too, Manchester United won all the matches Varane has started and lost both the matches he hasn’t.
David Silva has been the embodiment of success, trailing the player everywhere he goes. The Manchester City star departed the Etihad Stadium in the summer of 2020 to join Real Sociedad, where he has continued to put on a display whenever given the opportunity. In two seasons, the former Spanish international had four goals and nine assists. Silva is no stranger to playing against Manchester United, having faced them on several times in Manchester derbies. Real Sociedad fans will be hoping that Silva can repeat his magic against his former neighbours.
Merino isn’t one of Sociedad’s primary creative sources, but he does play a part in switching defence to attack with rapid passing. He’s not a ball wizard, nor is he a press-resistant midfielder, but he helps La Real burst down defences and erupt on the counterattack. Merino also helps La Real’s offensive exploits by creating overloads on the left wing. Merino, in addition to holding possession, is critical in reclaiming possession.
He pushes hard, positions himself advantageously to get the ball back, and detects the proper situations to catch the opposition off guard. Merino rushes his opponent to regain the ball or force a back pass in order to avoid a counter-attacking opportunity if La Real loses the possession high up the pitch. Facing Manchester United, this trait of his might just save Sociedad the game.
Man United predicted lineup vs Real Sociedad: Dubravka; Dalot, Varane, Maguire, Shaw; Casemiro, Fred; Antony, Fernandes, Elanga; Ronaldo.
Real Sociedad predicted lineup vs Man United: Remiro; Gorosabel, Zubeldia, Elustondo, Munoz; Mendez, Zubimendi, Merino; Silva; Sadiq, Sorloth.