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Starting XI: Manchester United vs. AS Roma

Will it be fifth time lucky for United in a cup semifinal?

Manchester United Training Session Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

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

(1) There’s no escaping this storyline: Manchester United are back in a cup semifinal after losing at this stage four different times over the past two seasons. It’s certainly not happy reading, but United’s recent semifinal futility will hang over the club until there’s a breakthrough. We are rapidly coming up on the four year anniversary of Manchester United’s last trophy and the Reds are heavily favored to break their semifinal hoodoo against a struggling AS Roma.

(2) Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reaction to drawing AS Roma in the Europa League semifinals:

I’ve not really seen too much of them. I know that they’ve had two good games against Ajax. They defend well, as Italians always do, of course. They’re an experienced team and we all know [Edin] Dzeko, so any ball in the box is a dangerous one. We’re looking forward to it, of course. We’re in a semi now and it feels like a proper European tie because Roma is a club with loads of tradition, history, but we’ve done well against Italian teams before. We’re looking forward to it and we’re going into them hoping to get to the final. If you can finish the season with a final and a trophy, that would be great.

(3) Solskjaer’s comments did not go down well in Italy:

(4) Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at Leeds United all but guarantees them a spot in next season’s Champions League. The Reds are now twelve points ahead of West Ham in fifth with just five Premier League matches to go. While United now lead the Premier League in goalless draws, some of their struggles no doubt came because Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani were held out of the starting lineup with one eye on Thursday night.

(5) Familiar faces: Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, both starters for Manchester United during their 2017 Europa League triumph, return to Old Trafford as members of AS Roma. There’s no guarantee, though, that either will play a big role in this cup tie. Smalling has been hampered by injuries over the last few months, while Mkhitaryan’s form has hit the skids. The Armenian playmaker started the season red hot — racking up 11 goals and 11 assists in the early going — but he hasn’t added to that total since February.

(6) Smalling’s chances of playing on Thursday got a big boost over the weekend, as he started in central defense for the first time in six weeks. He only played 59 minutes in Roma’s loss at Cagliari, but came through well enough that he could be an option for the semifinals. Left wing-back Leonardo Spinazzola also returned from a thigh injury to play a small part off the bench. Roma’s defense will be much tougher with these two back to full health.

(7) When manager Paulo Fonseca arrived from Shakhtar Donetsk, he promised expansive, attacking football — and he has somewhat succeeded in that regard. Roma’s 3-4-3 is littered with players comfortable on the ball, who advance up field with short passes, and remain patient in possession. As results in Serie A have worsened, though, Fonseca has turned Roma into a more pragmatic unit. Unfortunately, any improvements may come too late for the beleaguered manager, who is out of contract in the summer. With Roma lagging in seventh in Serie A, winning the Europa League may be Fonseca’s only route to an extension. And, considering the many reports of Roma’s ownership sounding out Maurizio Sarri, it might already be too late.

(8) Paulo Fonseca’s thoughts on Manchester United:

This semifinal with Manchester United is very important and I must stay entirely focused on a game that is too important for us. It’s true that Manchester United are very dangerous on the counterattack, but we must realize it’ll be really difficult if we go to Manchester and just defend. We need to keep the ball and make it difficult for them. The team must show character and not sit too deep.

(9) Roma’s Serie A tailspin continued on Sunday with a 3-2 loss to Cagliari. That now makes two losses for Fonseca’s side against relegation candidates in the last three weeks. The performance wasn't all bad — Roma held 72% possession and peppered 17 shots at Cagliari — but they struggled to convert this statistical dominance into a composed performance.

(10) Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s observation that Roma “defend well” is some ways off the truth. In fact, they rank in the bottom half of Serie A sides with 51 goals allowed this season. Roma play three at the back — usually Gianluca Mancini, Roger Ibanez, and Bryan Cristante or Chris Smalling — with Leonardo Spinazzola and Rick Karsdorp at wing back. Fonseca does not ask his side to aggressively press the opposition, instead preferring to keep bodies behind the ball to congest the middle of the pitch.

(11) A must-read tactical analysis of this matchup from the AS Roma perspective: