The Europa League concludes its brief Round of 32 this week. We won’t be covering all 16 matches, but we will be highlighting a few matchups that are close – at least on paper – and could shuffle up the favorites list heading into 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. While four clubs – including favorite Sevilla – have all but clinched a spot in the next round, and Rangers have officially punched their ticket, the other 11 spots remain mostly up for grabs.
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.
Last week in Bruges, the Belgians opened the scoring in the 15th minute, with Emmanuel Dennis finding net to take the early lead. Anthony Martial equalized a little over 20 minutes later, and neither club could find a goal the rest of the way, ending in a 1-1 draw.
Not much has changed back in either club’s domestic league, but each played a match over the weekend.
After a 3-0 win against Watford on Sunday, Manchester United moved into fifth place in the Premier League, which is likely going to be the last qualifying spot for next season’s Champions League thanks to crosstown rival Manchester City’s two-year ban from UEFA competition. It is, however, going to be a tight race for those European slots, and the Red Devils are only one point ahead of Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United. With 11 matches remaining, it should be fun down the stretch in the Premier League, especially with the UEFA positions falling one spot further down the table.
Club Brugge also won their weekend match – a 1-0 win over Sporting Charleroi – and is all but guaranteed a return trip to Europe next season, likely in the Champions League. They are currently in first place in the Belgian First Division with three 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 home club in this semi-reset matchup, Manchester United is an overwhelming favorite to win the matchup, advancing in 79% of FiveThirtyEight simulations. They are also nearly the overall favorite to win the tournament, winning it all 11% of the time. For this match itself, they are heavily favored, winning 63% of the time.
But they don’t play matches on paper, and I’ve played enough FIFA to know that anybody can lose in these tournaments. But with all three English clubs favored to advance to the Round of 16, we could be heading for another all-England final at Stadion Energa Gdańsk on 27 May. Or fans of the English Premier League could be heading towards disappointment.
We’ll know what those chances will look like tomorrow night!
Until next time…