It might not necessarily be in the competition that Manchester United would typically expect to feature, but Thursday night’s trip to Celta Vigo in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final is the biggest game that the English club have had on the continent in some years. Champions League clashes with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have come and gone in the last five years, but this tie offers a lot more than a spot in United’s first European final since 2011; it’s a chance to earn Champions League qualification, and given the way this Premier League season has panned out under Jose Mourinho’s tutelage, such a reward could be priceless.
Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Swansea City at Old Trafford certainly made the prospect of a top four finish look more remote, meaning Thursday’s game takes on added significance. Mourinho had some good news during his pre-match press conference on Wednesday, as he confirmed that Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly would be available for the game at the Estadio Municipal de Balaidos. Given that the United manager lost Luke Shaw to injury for the season last weekend, and Bailly was also withdrawn after taking a knock against the Welsh side, good news on that level is most welcome.
Tiredness will likely be a big factor for United, however. From front to back, they looked like a team that was running out of steam against Swansea, and Mourinho will be keenly aware of managing his players’ fitness with six games of the season still left to navigate. Having said that, given that the Europa League offers the chance to lift a trophy that the club have never won, along with the aforementioned Champions League qualification, United will surely field the strongest team that they can.
As such, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see David De Gea take over from Sergio Romero in goal, even though the Argentine has been a mainstay in this season’s Europa League team. Bailly and Smalling feels like the most likely central defensive partnership, with Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia on their left and right respectively. In midfield, Paul Pogba should be plunged straight back into midfield alongside Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, who will be free from the domestic suspension he received having been sent off so dramatically in last week’s Manchester derby.
United’s attack is more difficult to predict, however. Marcus Rashford, who has cut a frustrated figure of late having received some poor service from the players behind him, should start, but who will partner him? Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be available for selection, and the Armenian’s five goals in the competition this season would certainly make him a safe bet for first scorer, given that he also struck recently in both legs of United’s quarter final victory over Anderlecht. Anyone who fancies placing money on such an outcome should head over to mybettingsites.co.uk, whilst it also seems fairly likely that Jesse Lingard will return to the side after Anthony Martial’s struggles this past weekend.
Whilst it remains unclear just how much United still have to offer as this long, draining season draws to a close, it’s clear that there is still plenty left to play, and fight for when it comes to Jose Mourinho’s side. Here’s hoping the Portuguese and a few key returning players can inspire the Red Devils to victory.