The Europa League begins the knockout phase today, with the Round of 32 kicking off around Europe this afternoon. We won’t be covering all 16 matches, but we will be highlighting the matchups featuring either clubs with a chance to win it all or match-ups that could see either team pull out a victory and move on to the Round of 16.
While Europa League is not packed with the big names of the Champions League, there are still some high quality clubs playing for the title, and with it, an automatic berth in the Group Stage of next season’s Champions League. And with the unseeded clubs playing host in this opening leg, we could have some surprise club that seemingly improve their odds before next week’s concluding leg.
Our first matchup features English Premier League royalty Manchester United traveling to Belgium to face off against Club Brugge. The match kicks off from Jan Breydel Stadium in Bruges at 6:55pm CET (12:55pm EST).
How They Got Here
Manchester United qualified for the Europa League group stage by finishing sixth in last season’s Premier League. In their first appearance in Europa League since winning the tournament back in 2017, they finished 4-1-1 in group play, winning Group L over AZ Alkmaar, Partizan, and Astana. The lone loss was a surprising one in Kazakhstan against Astana, but otherwise, they looked very impressive, scoring ten goals while only surrendering two, which both came in the loss at Astana.
Club Brugge needed to take a bit more of a winding path to reach this point after beginning in the third qualifying round of Champions League as last season’s second place finisher in the Belgian First Division. They advanced through to the group stage in the “senior” tournament, defeating Dynamo Kyiv and LASK, before a distant third place finish behind Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid in Group A. The third place finish was good enough for a move to Europa League, though they were the lowest-scoring third place club and thus unseeded in the draw.
Manchester United is currently on the outside looking in at a potential spot in European competition next season, though with Manchester City’s two-year ban from UEFA competition, they might find a place back in Europa League regardless. They are currently in seventh place, one point behind Sheffield United for the automatic group stage spot in Europa League, and two points behind fifth place Tottenham Hotspur for a trip to the group stage in Champions League.
Club Brugge, on the other hand, is all but guaranteed a return trip to Europe next season, and is in position to return to Champions League. They are currently in first place in the Belgian First Division with four matches remaining in its “regular season,” and have already qualified for a spot in the playoffs to determine who wins the league.
Never Tell Me the Odds
As the seeded club in this matchup, Manchester United is an overwhelming favorite to win the matchup, advancing in 71% of FiveThirtyEight simulations. They are also the overall favorite to win the tournament, winning it all 10% of the time, so a good start in Bruges could increase the odds even further. For this match itself, the visiting club is favored to win slightly, doing so in 44% of simulations. The host Club Brugge has about an equal chance of forcing a draw as a win (26%), so you would think they’d want to get off on the right foot and defend their home pitch tonight.
On paper, this match is a little closer than you would expect given these clubs’ pedigrees, but Europa League always has a way of providing some wacky results. Whether or not it will do so in the match featuring the current favorite remains to be seen, but we will know soon enough as to which club came out on top and how it improved their chances of both advancing and winning the tournament overall.
Until next time…