Manchester United kick off their Europa League campaign on Thursday against FC Astana of Kazakhstan. Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the match.
(1) With their backs to the wall — partly owing to untimely injuries and partly to subpar August results — United proved the naysayers wrong with a battling performance against Leicester City at the weekend. It wasn’t particularly dominant stuff, but that’s mostly down to Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, and Luke Shaw’s absence. No complaints with three more points and the second clean sheet of the season.
(2) Marcus Rashford’s penalty — United’s fourth of the young season — made the difference on Saturday. The lack of goals from open play isn’t ideal, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won’t mind too much as his side finishes the weekend in the top four. And we can thank Arsenal’s choke-job at Vicarage Road for that.
Manchester United have been awarded 40% of the 10 penalties given in the Premier League so far this season.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 14, 2019
⚽️ Rashford pic.twitter.com/hDZbsVqqEM
(3) Expect Solskjaer to ring the changes on Thursday night. Sergio Romero in goal, Axel Tuanzebe and Phil Jones (or Marcos Rojo) at center back, Fred in midfield, Mason Greenwood up top, etc. United have played a mostly-settled lineup so far in the Premier League, so Group L matches present a good opportunity to rotate in some of the squad players. Still, it’s a careful balancing act to freshen up the side without squandering any of the hard-earned momentum built from the Leicester victory.
(4) Of course, Ole’s hands are somewhat tied by this injury crisis. Pogba, Martial, and Shaw all missed Saturday’s win over Leicester — and, even if passed fit, are unlikely to feature in this one. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who overcame a back injury to play last weekend, should sit out, too. Diogo Dalot would be a great option at right back, but he’s been out all season with a bad hip. Is he nearing a return? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
(5) Speaking of that Dalot interview, the 20-year-old has only one Europa League goal:
It’s a big competition, but not as big for this club. This club needs to be in the Champions League every year. Of course, it’s a big competition that if any team wins it’ll be a great achievement, but for this club, when we are in it, we just need to win it.
(6) The Astana match — and the group stage as a whole — should mean plenty of playing time for the academy youngsters. Solskjaer has lots of choices: Tahith Chong made his first appearance of the season on Saturday with twenty solid minutes against Leicester. Mason Greenwood, while still looking for his first senior goal, has played a part in four matches so far. Angel Gomes (on the bench Saturday) and James Garner (crushing it for the U23s) could be in line for minutes, too.
(7) Okay, the Europa League is not everyone’s cup of tea. But, even though Europe’s second-tier competition lacks prestige, it might again prove a useful avenue into the Champions League. Under José Mourinho, United defeated a talented Ajax side in the 2017 Europa League final to secure a Champions League spot (and the club’s first UEFA Cup) despite a sixth-place league finish. Solskjaer’s Reds aren’t yet good enough to overlook this competition and the ticket to next season’s Champions League that it offers.
(8) The Kazakh Premier League doesn’t really move the needle around these parts, so get up to speed with Thursday’s opponent with a little help from the brilliant @UtdArena:
FC Astana Scouting:— UtdArena. (@utdarena) September 15, 2019
✧ average age of 29.6 — one of the oldest in Europe
— fewer substitutions
— maintaining possession
— crossing (predominantly from the right)
— multiple through balls (poor accuracy)
— multiple line-breaking passes (poor accuracy)
— fouling pic.twitter.com/N7Wj4ReBEa
In 60% of their games, FC Astana have lined up with a 4-2-3-1. However, due to their reliance on their wingers for productivity, especially Tomasov (their RW), their two central midfielders play as two defensive/holding midfielders. https://t.co/7YPJo6bIJK— UtdArena. (@utdarena) September 15, 2019
(9) FC Astana are the undoubted class of Kazakhstan, winning five league titles in a row and in decent position for a six-peat this season. Although Astana find themselves in third with less than two months left, they’ve got two games in hand to close a five point gap with FC Tobol atop the table.
(10) Roman Hryhorchuk’s side returned to winning ways with a 2-1 victory over Shakhter Karagandy on Sunday. Trailing 1-0 at the break, two second-half goals made it six wins from seven (in all competitions) for Astana.
(11) With one fewer day of rest than United, Astana face a grueling 3,000-mile trip from Kazakhstan to Old Trafford. Regardless, the Reds should roll in this one based on the talent gap alone. Even if Ole elects to field an extremely young side on Thursday, anything less than a rout would be disappointing. Let’s get Group L off to a strong start and keep the top players fresh for a tricky road trip to West Ham this weekend.