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Starting XI: Manchester United vs. AZ Alkmaar

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Group L draws to a close on Thursday night

Manchester United Training and Press Conference Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Manchester United welcome AZ Alkmaar to Old Trafford on Thursday with top spot in Europa League Group L on the line. Here’s everything that you need to know ahead of the match.

(1) The Reds wrapped up a very successful week with a derby day win over Manchester City on Saturday. That result lifted United up to fifth in the Premier League and all but killed off City’s three-peat hopes in the process. Marcus Rashford added another goal from the penalty spot and Anthony Martial capped off the 2-1 victory with a twisting shot in off the post. When those two have their shooting boots on, United are an entirely different team.

(2) Last time out in the Europa League, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took an extremely young side to FC Astana in Kazakhstan. With most of the squad plucked right out of the academy, the Reds unsurprisingly lost 2-1. That was United’s first loss in Group L and puts the club in jeopardy of missing out on top spot in the group. Finishing second wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it makes the knockout rounds more difficult.

(3) But Manchester United need only one point on Thursday to win Group L. An AZ Alkmaar victory, though, would see the visitors top the group. Whoever finishes atop Group L will be seeded for Monday night’s draw and avoid the other group winners and Champions League entrants in the next round. That latter group could include the likes of Inter Milan, Ajax, and Benfica.

(4) With a league match against Everton coming just three days later, Ole will likely heavily rotate his side for this one. Probably not to the same extent as the FC Astana trip, but expect some of the young guys to feature on Thursday.

(5) Some possible hints of the upcoming team selection from Monday’s U23 squad: Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood were not even in the team at all, while James Garner only played 64 minutes. All three could be in line for minutes against AZ Alkmaar. On the other hand, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes both went the full ninety in the academy’s 3-1 win over West Brom.

(6) Paul Pogba seems to be inching closer to a return, but Solskjaer’s comments before the Manchester derby should be considered a little concerning. “He’s out on the grass training,” Ole said. “Hopefully we’ll see him before the New Year, definitely.” That return date just keeps slipping further and further every time the club issues an update. And, of course, the New Year brings with it the winter transfer window. It’s hard to believe that a deal of this magnitude — the much-rumored Pogba to Madrid one — would come together in January, but crazier things have happened.

(7) Back in October, Manchester United drew with AZ Alkmaar in a dour 0-0 match in The Hague. Ever since, though, the Dutch club has been red-hot. They’ve won eight of nine; their only dropped points coming in a 2-2 draw with Partizan Belgrade. That hot spell has AZ second in the Eredivisie and through to the knockouts in the Europa League. On Saturday, AZ traveled to PEC Zwolle and thumped the hosts 3-0.

(8) It’s no surprise, then, that AZ boss Arne Slot feels pretty confident ahead of Thursday:

We want to win the group. We want to win every game. There’s a lot of talk about the fact we’re playing a lot of matches, that we get tired because of it. I actually think the opposite is true — because we’re playing so many games, we have become incredibly strong physically, and that’s an advantage.

(9) Manchester United’s defense — which held free-scoring Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City to just two goals combined — will need to be at its best. AZ score a lot of goals, not least because they’re strong on the wings and push players forward aggressively. Thankfully, top scorer Myron Boadu will miss the match through suspension. Other dangers remain, though: Omar Idrissi (9 goals) and Calvin Stengs (4 goals) are big threats. And midfielder Teun Koopmeiners is a killer from the penalty spot.

(10) On the other side of the ball, AZ have only allowed eight goals in the Eredivisie and four in Europa League Group L (all to Partizan Belgrade) so far this season. Slot has drilled them into a squad of intelligent pressers, preferring to contain their opponents by forcing the ball wide rather than going with an all-out press.

(11) The biggest question: how strong of a side will Arne Slot play? AZ host league-leading Ajax on Sunday with a chance to move even with them on points. The AZ boss doesn’t sound like he’s planning to rest his top players, but that won’t leave much recovery time before a season-defining match this weekend.