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Starting XI: Club Brugge vs. Manchester United

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The Reds hit the road for their Europa League knockout opener

UEFA Europa League”Manchester United v AZ Alkmaar”

Everything you need to know ahead of Thursday’s match:

(1) Manchester United head to Belgium fresh off a convincing 2-0 win over Chelsea. The breaks definitely went the Reds’ way — two Chelsea goals disallowed by VAR and Harry Maguire dodging a first-half red card — but United were still well worth the win.

(2) Both Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo are registered and good to go for the Europa League. While Ighalo’s start to life in Manchester was slowed by missing last week’s training camp, he made his club debut late in the Chelsea match and even came close to opening his account. Bruno, too, proved a major threat — picking up an assist on a fine corner and looking particularly dangerous on other set pieces. It’s still early, but he seems every bit as creative and talented as advertised.

(3) Momentarily setting aside Manchester City’s two-year UEFA ban (which might still be overturned or reduced on appeal), the Europa League probably remains Manchester United’s best route into the 2020/21 Champions League. Even though fifth place will likely be good enough to qualify for the Champions League, United must show better consistency — particularly against lesser sides — if they hope to reel in Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. And, while Chelsea look pretty shaky, only Liverpool have won more points than Spurs since José Mourinho’s appointment in November.

(4) Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s comments after Manchester United were drawn against Club Brugge:

I watched Club Brugge against PSG and Real Madrid. They did well in the Champions League and they stayed in most of the games, with one or two bad defeats. But they are a good team. They are top of the Belgian league and, funnily enough, I used to have their second goalkeeper, Ethan Horvath, at Molde. It will be good to see him again.

They will be tough games, but you are always going to get tough games as you head into the knockout stages. We are hoping to go through to the last sixteen.

(5) Even with Paul Pogba sidelined, he’s still making news at Manchester United. Shortly before Monday’s win at Chelsea, Mino Raiola endeared himself even more with United fans by launching a bizarre Twitter rant accusing Solskjaer of calling Pogba his prisoner. Most expect the star midfielder to be sold this summer, but it’s not looking like an amicable exit is on the cards.

(6) While Manchester United advanced to this stage by topping their Europa League group, Club Brugge arrived by crashing out of the Champions League. But, as Ole mentioned above, that’s mostly thanks to a brutal group that included Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. Either one of those sides could be lifting the European Cup later this season. And, to their credit, Club Brugge managed to hold Real Madrid to a 2-2 draw at the Bernabeu.

(7) Things look rosier on the home front. Club Brugge are way out in front of the Belgian Pro League with a nine point lead over Gent in second. They haven’t lost domestically since November and look dead certs to win their 16th league title.

(8) On Saturday, Club Brugge got a late winner from Mats Rits to further their stranglehold on top spot. That was his second goal of the match, rescuing all three points deep in second-half stoppage time.

(9) Two other Club Brugge players to watch:

  • Emmanuel Dennis scored both goals for his club in the draw at Real Madrid, a performance that’s sparked interest from suitors like Borussia Dortmund, Newcastle, AS Monaco, and Sampdoria. Dennis plays anywhere across the front line and has nabbed eight goals this season in all competitions.
  • In goal for Club Brugge, Manchester United fans will recognize an old Liverpool foe — Simon Mignolet. It was a rocky six years at Anfield for Mignolet, but the veteran keeper has found a home in Belgium with 19 clean sheets in all competitions this season.

(10) Club Brugge coach Philippe Clement on the first leg of this cup tie:

The Europa League is important for Manchester United, so they will give everything against us. But we will play our own game and give our all. I’m really looking forward to this. One thing is certain: our stadium will be sold out. It’s a new challenge for my squad. I hope I’ll be celebrating afterwards.

(11) Supporters at the Jan Breydel Stadium are not trolling Manchester United by singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, but rather honoring a former player who died in a car accident.