Ryan: The Europa League group stage draw was made last friday (26 August) and Manchester United will take on Feyenoord, Fenerbahçe and Zoriya Luhansk.
It’s an interesting and testing draw for United, which throws up a couple of tasty narratives: the trip to Feyenoord will see the Red Devils return to the scene of their 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup final victory over Barcelona, and the visit of Fenerbahçe will bring about an Old Trafford return for Robin van Persie.
United boss José Mourinho remarked that, with opponents such as Feyenoord and Fenerbahçe, this group more resembles a Champions League group than a Europa League one.
Mourinho also insisted that United will be intent on winning the competition — which they have never managed before, in either its UEFA Cup or Europa League format.
But with a Premier League title challenge surely a priority, how seriously should United be taking Europe’s secondary club competition?
The prospect of playing a full-strength side every Thursday and Sunday for weeks on end, is one that has tripped up many clubs in recent years; in pushing too hard for Europa League success, do United risk damaging their domestic campaign?
Andi: I can't be the only person that thinks Mourinho is being slightly disingenuous. It would be disastrous for all sorts of reason to announce 'yeah, we'll be binning this one off', and yet if and when United have a Europa League game on Thursday followed by a big Premier League game Sunday, it'll be very surprising if there isn't a significant amount of rotation. The Europa League is a bit like the League Cup: it becomes very important once you reach the semi-finals.
But rotation might be no bad thing. There are players in United's squad that need first-team football but probably aren't going to otherwise get it, and this competition is a nice opportunity for Mourinho to keep his younger players and squad members busy. Stressing the competition's importance at this early stage can only help with that.
Ryan: Yeah, that’s true. While insisting that he was intent on winning the Euopa League, almost in the next breath, Mourinho began talking about how players like Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian -- who, judging by their lack of Premier League game time this season, can only be considered as back-ups — will find minutes in the Europa League.
Although this is a strong group for the Europa League with some big-name teams in it, it is still a group that United should be progressing from with their eyes closed and one hand tied behind their back. That said, the same could have been said about last season’s Champions League group and look how that worked out.
But still, I’d expect a degree of rotation, and guys like Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin to be racking up appearances in the competition. Our squad is much stronger now than it was 12 months ago, and there’s a handful of players who should/will view the Europa League as an opportunity to impress Mourinho. That should be enough to progress through the group stage, then, I suppose, how seriously you take the knockout ties is reviewed on a case by case basis depending on who the opponent is.
The Premier League should be the priority, especially as I think we have a real chance of winning it. But where should the Europa League fit into United’s hierarchy of potential honours this season? Is it too much work for too little gain, or do you see it as a trophy very much worth winning?
Andi: Personally speaking, I'm a huge fan of the strange and nonsensical thing that is the Europa League and would very much like to see United win it. If only because the trophy itself is so weird. But there are, I think, two reasons why it might be a good thing for United, and Mourinho, to target properly this season.
The first is that, well, it's a trophy. Winning the Premier League this season, with most of big teams having spent big money and, in some cases, brought in brilliant new managers, could be even more ridiculously difficult than it usually is. Even Champions League qualification could be tough: there are at least six (and maybe seven or even eight) teams whose seasons will probably count as some kind of failure if they don't make the top four, and that isn't going to work out for everybody. So a trophy, a tangible measure of success and achievement, would be very welcome.
The second reason is slightly more vague, but we know that Mourinho subscribes to Brian Clough's "taste of champagne" theory. Clough once traced his success at Nottingham Forest back to a win in the 1976 Anglo-Scottish Cup; not the most prestigious competition in the world, but his squad, composed of players who had never really won much before, "tasted champagne, and found that they liked it". Then they went on to win the league and two European Cups. Both Mourinho and John Terry have indicated that Chelsea's 2004-05 League Cup win served much the same purpose: it proved to the team that they could win as this team, and set the tone for the bigger trophies that came later. United's situation isn't quite the same, of course; there are plenty of medals sprinkled throughout this squad. But something to act as a catalyst would be very welcome.
Ryan: I’m with you on your general view of the Europa League: I absolutely love it. And, over the last few years, I find myself enjoying Europa League games more than most Champions League ties. Although Sevilla have pretty much monopolised the competition in recent years, almost any side in the last-16 genuinely could win it, which certainly isn’t the case in the Champions League. So, personally, I’d love to see United go as far as possible.
The carrot of Champions League qualification for the winner, you’d hope, will be irrelevant for United this season, as finishing outside the top four with the current squad would be a pretty grand failure, even with the level of competition in the Premier League these days.
And I definitely agree with your "taste of champagne" analogy: the emphasis Mourinho always tends to place upon winning the first major trophy of the season — the League Cup — is a strategic attempt to instill a lust for medals within his squad that will see them better equipped and more determined to contest honours at the business end of the campaign.
The Europa League often throws up some pretty interesting fixtures, with clubs who are unlikely to reach the Champions League drawn against a fallen European giant, or two teams from opposite sides of the Continent — both geographically and culturally — going head to head. So, to finish up, is there any team in particular you’d like to see United matched up with in the Europa League knockout stages (provided the group stage is navigated)?
Andi: Irritatingly, the Jorge Sampaoli Sevilla Experiment is, by virtue of last year's victory, going to be gracing the Champions League this season. Maybe they'll drop down. That would be fun.
Of those in at the group stage, Roma and Internazionale have both bought some exciting players this summer so that could be entertaining. Athletic Bilbao are a special club, as are Fiorentina, and both are reputed to be decent awaydays. But as ever, the only real answer to this question is: please, please, nobody from the Premier League. That's just so boring.