Manchester United have used the UEFA Europa League as a backdoor route to bringing Champions League football back to Old Trafford before and may do so again this season. The Red Devils won Europe’s secondary club continental competition in 2017 under Jose Mourinho and are competing in it again this season.
There is a direct correlation between Premier League sides taking the Europa League seriously and the introduction of the rule that awards the winners a place in the following season’s Champions League. Four of English football’s top sides, including United, have contested the Europa League final in as many seasons. Liverpool were runners-up in 2016, while Chelsea met Arsenal in the 2019 final with the Blues prevailing 4-1 at the Olympic Stadium in Baku.
A relatively kind group stage draw this year gives Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a realistic chance of laying down a marker for bringing major silverware to Old Trafford. United play Astana of Kazakhstan, Serbian side Partizan Belgrade and Eredivisie outfit AZ Alkmaar during the Europa League group stage, this autumn. Although two of those opponents make for hostile and lengthy away trips, it could have been much harder.
As of 19th September, Betway make United their 9/2 betting favourites to lift the trophy. That puts them ahead of fellow Premier League side Arsenal, who have reached the semis or better in each of the last two seasons. An absence of Champions League football hasn’t harmed the club’s pulling power. Solskjaer got his man in the world’s most expensive defender, Harry Maguire. This is a maiden European campaign for the former Leicester City centre-back.
Red Devils youngsters set for more game time in Europe
Maguire is proving popular with Red Devils supporters, with fans hailing the starts made by him and fellow new recruits Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James to their United careers.
Wales winger James has been particularly impressive during the early weeks of the season, scoring three Premier League goals since his move from Swansea City. And to think Solskjaer snatched him from under the noses of another of the Red Devils’ old rivals, Leeds United. Wan-Bissaka, meanwhile, earned a first senior call-up to the England squad following fine form and a reported £50,000,000 move from Crystal Palace. Only injury prevented the right-back from involvement in the Euro 2020 qualifying successes over Bulgaria and Kosovo during the international break.
Solskjaer has indicated he will rotate his squad for Europa League games in a bid to manage an autumn that sees United compete on three fronts – with regular Premier League commitments and the EFL Cup as well. This creates opportunities for some of the younger players at Old Trafford who haven’t been blooded in Europe yet. It means, for example, teenage forward Mason Greenwood can expect more regular involvement.
Solskjaer is already waxing lyrical about the young talent he is trying to nurture. “Mason is one of the best finishers I have seen,” the United boss told Sky Sports before the Europa League home game with Astana. “And I have played with quite a few decent ones.”
Greenwood’s fellow England Under-21 international Axel Tuanzebe played at centre back in the Championship play-off final on loan at Aston Villa last season, earning promotion to the Premier League. He is another set for a first-team role in United’s Europa League campaign with Eric Bailly a long-term injury absentee. Solskjaer seems happy to shuffle his pack in Europe and has also made remodelling defence a priority. While Sweden international Victor Lindelof has signed a new deal through until 2024, Chris Smalling was allowed to join Serie A side Roma on loan before the Italian transfer window slammed shut.
As the Old Trafford doors have closed on expensive flops like Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez (now both at Inter Milan), they are open to a new crop of talented youth with huge potential. The Europa League can be a platform on which they perform for United this season, but there is pressure that goes with that tag of tournament favourites.