Europa League preview: Manchester United prepare for Barcelona battle
The Europa League is back with a bang, as some of Europe’s biggest sides drop into the competition from the Champions League.
Among the heavy hitters joining the tournament are Barcelona, who face Manchester United after finishing third behind Bayern Munich and Internazionale in their group.
Juventus, who are in trouble on and off the field, welcome Nantes to Turin. The Bianconeri now have greater motivation to win the Europa League – their domestic points deduction has significantly hampered their hopes of European qualification for next season.
Six-time Europa League champions Sevilla face an exciting tie with PSV Eindhoven, who last won this competition in 1977-78.
Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen take on Ligue 1 outfit Monaco in what is expected to be an intriguing matchup at the BayArena.
Ahead of an enticing round of 32, we used the Twenty3 Toolbox to unpick some of the storylines in this crucial round of fixtures.
Manchester United vs Barcelona (Thursday, 5.45pm)
These two giants of the game have a lot of history in the Champions League but will be just as eager to get one over each other in this titanic tie.
Under Xavi, Barcelona have boasted a sharper attack, scoring 12 goals to Manchester United’s 10, while taking fewer efforts at goal (88 to 106).
Both of these sides like to dominate possession, although Erik ten Hag has tweaked his approach depending on the opponent he faces, which could see them cede possession.
Casemiro will be crucial to United’s chances of success, given his experience playing in El Clasico, a fixture he has won nine times, drawn four and lost six.
For the Blaugrana, veteran talisman Robert Lewandowski will need to produce his best form to get the better of the formidable defensive partnership of Raphaël Varane and Lisandro Martínez.
The Pole scored five goals in five Champions League group stage matches – all were netted in open play – and will be eager to take any chance that falls his way.
This matchup should prove every bit as exciting as the billing.
Juventus vs Nantes (Thursday, 8pm)
After a 15-point deduction in Serie A for previous transfer dealings, Juventus will be looking to go full strength in the Europa League in an attempt to secure Champions League football next term.
The Italian outfit have outscored Nantes nine goals to six in Europe, though their expected goals tally is marginally worse (8.66 to nine).
Juventus dominate every facet of possession compared to Antoine Kombouaré’s side, recording more passes (2,398 to 1,775), crosses (44 to 26) and through-balls (19 to six).
As a result of the Bianconeri’s dominance on the ball, Nantes are the slightly more active team defensively – though they have kept two clean sheets to the Old Lady’s none.
Gleison Bremer will be crucial for Juventus in steadying the ship in a turbulent moment for the club.
In the Champions League, he won 17 of his 21 defensive duels alongside 20 interceptions and 33 ball recoveries – demonstrating his importance at the back.
Midfielder Ludovic Blas will be the one to watch for Nantes. The 25-year-old has two goals and three assists in the Europa League.
He has completed a team-high 20 dribbles, taken 21 touches in the opposition box, won 34 attacking duels and registered 17 efforts on goal.
Sevilla vs PSV (Thursday, 8pm)
No team has won the Europa League more times than Sevilla, and they will be keen to extend that record after coming third to Dortmund and Manchester City in their Champions League group.
However, it is PSV who have outperformed Sevilla in front of goal so far in Europe, scoring 15 to six for the Spanish side.
This round, though, the Dutch outfit will be without Cody Gakpo, who had been in unstoppable form before his transfer to Liverpool.
PSV have also been the busier team defensively, recording more defensive duels (437 to 301) and ball recoveries (447 to 418).
Without Gakpo, the 19-year-old Xavi Simons is emerging as PSV’s biggest threat, with nine goals and four assists – one coming in the Europa League.
Bayer Leverkusen vs Monaco (Thursday, 8pm)
Bayer Leverkusen have had a torrid time in Europe, scoring just four goals to Monaco’s nine.
The two are evenly matched defensively, with Monaco slightly edging their opponents in efficiency, completing 591 defensive actions to 550.
Despite winning fewer loose balls (95 to 71), the French outfit registered more ball recoveries in the attacking third (198 vs 140) – showing their desire to press high.
Winger Moussa Diaby will be the key player for Bayer Leverkusen. He has scored two goals in Europe so far and is a marvel on the ball, completing 14 dribbles and 17 progressive runs.
His ability to create chances from very little will be crucial to Bayer Leverkusen’s hopes of progressing in this competition.
Monaco will be hoping their talisman, Wissam Ben Yedder, can fire them past their opponents. He has been clinical in front of goal, scoring three goals in the Europa League.
The 32-year-old leads from the front, registering 19 ball recoveries, six interceptions and nine defensive duels won.
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