Manchester United face off with Sevilla on Wednesday in a tantalizing Champions League round-of-sixteen tie. In a matchup of the last two Europa League winners, the Reds open on the road in Spain before March 13’s return engagement at Old Trafford.
United got to this point — back in the knockout round after a four year absence — by topping Group A. Now they will meet a club that has built an impressive European pedigree in recent years.
But this isn’t the same Sevilla that pulled off a Europa League three-peat from 2014 to 2016. Those historic victories came under the steady leadership of manager Unai Emery and director of football Monchi. Both men have since departed for new challenges, with Emery now in the Paris Saint-Germain hot-seat and Monchi calling the shots at AS Roma.
Jorge Sampaoli followed, but lasted only one season at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan before jumping ship for Argentina’s national team. His successor, Eduardo Berizzo, couldn’t even make it that long — replaced by Vincenzo Montella in December after only six months in charge.
Since Montella’s appointment, Sevilla have been besieged by injury. In just the last month, Ever Banega, Luis Muriel, and Nolito were sidelined with muscular complaints. All three returned to training this week and could still be passed fit before Wednesday.
To make matters even worse, Joaquin Correa picked up a hamstring injury in Sevilla’s weekend win over Las Palmas and now looks doubtful for the Champions League match in midweek.
Health concerns aside, Sevilla enter this European tie in relatively good form. Montella’s squad has won three matches on the bounce, rising up to fifth place in La Liga (albeit with an uninspiring -4 goal differential). Other than the questionable Banega, the Andalusian club boasts dangerous attackers in Pablo Sarabia and top scorer Wissam Ben Yedder.
Sarabia, in particular, poses a special threat to Manchester United’s defense. The 25-year-old winger has tallied five goals and four assists in his last eight matches.
Exactly who will be in the United backline, though, remains up in the air. On Saturday, Eric Bailly finally returned from a long layoff after ankle surgery. He only got on the pitch for about a minute in second-half stoppage time, but still must be considered a strong bet to play against Sevilla.
That’s mostly due to a worrying downturn in the form of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. Both center backs played poorly in the shock loss at Newcastle and one will likely drop to the bench in favor of Bailly. Jones missed out on last weekend’s FA Cup win after picking up a knock — not to mention recent reports of a bust-up with the boss.
The other subject of that rumor — Paul Pogba — also sat out at Huddersfield Town. A late scratch due to illness, Pogba’s availability for Wednesday will be a last-minute decision. When asked about the midfielder’s health by the club website, manager Jose Mourinho demurred: “I don’t know about Paul.”
Even considering Pogba’s up-and-down performances of late, his absence would be a major blow to United. The Reds often look like world-beaters with Pogba running midfield, but also-rans without him. If Pogba cannot play, Ander Herrera could make a comeback after missing the last three matches.
Thankfully, there’s no doubt surrounding Alexis Sanchez. Even though he played in Arsenal’s Europa League group-stage win over Cologne earlier this season, Alexis is good to go for the Champions League. Since he only appeared in the Europa League and switched clubs in the January transfer window, Sanchez remains eligible for United’s Champions League campaign.
And that’s great news because the Chilean has hit the ground running in a United shirt. On Saturday, his audacious pass put Romelu Lukaku through on goal to make it 2-0 and effectively kill off the game. That dynamic vision and ability to split open the opposing defense has been missing from Manchester United for too long.
Mourinho confessed this week that he never considers his club a legit Champions League contender before reaching the quarterfinals. Beat Sevilla in this two-legged tie and United will be in with a shout, no matter how sketchy their current form looks.
After all, Mourinho — striving to become the first manager to lift the European Cup with three different clubs — has been here before. His two Champions League triumphs came with underdog Porto and Inter Milan, shutting down more fancied opponents all the way to the title. If the Reds can get back to playing stout defense and scoring opportunistic goals, history could repeat itself.
Don’t underestimate Manchester United’s chances. This competition is The Special One’s specialty.