The Europa League begins its abbreviated Round of 16 today, with the second leg coming next week. These matches are feeling the effects of COVID-19 as it rages across Europe, with multiple matches played behind closed doors without fans in the stand, and two matches – Sevilla versus Roma and Inter Milan v Getafe – currently suspended this week amid local health concerns.
We’re not going to preview the remaining six matches this week, but we will highlight a few of the matches expected to go on Thursday night. We hope that things return to normal sooner rather than later, but also applaud the local officials in trying to prevent the further spread of the disease. The mood is slightly dampened, but the action must go on, especially with such a prompt turnaround needed before next week’s second leg.
Our first matchup will feature the current favorite to win it all – English royalty Manchester United – as they travel to Austria to meet LASK in an empty stadium Thursday night. The match kicks off from an empty Linzer Stadion in Linz at 6:55pm CET (1:55pm EDT).
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. During the Round of 32, the Red Devils faced off against Club Brugge, winning 6-1 on aggregate after a dominating 5-0 victory in the second leg.
LASK started their Europa League journey in the Champions League third qualifying round after finishing second in the Austria Bundesliga last season. They defeated Basel in that round, only to lose to Manchester United prior opponent Club Brugge in the playoff round. That earned the Austrians a trip to the Europa League group stage, where they were drawn into Group D. They finished first ahead of Sporting CP, compiling the same 4-1-1 record of the Red Devils. In the Round of 32, they played against AZ, winning 3-1 on aggregate after a 2-0 victory at home in the second leg.
Manchester United continues to fight its way to the top of the table back in England. They were in fifth place prior to leg two of the Round of 32; they currently find themselves in… fifth place, having gone 1-1-0 since that triumph over Club Brugge. Thanks to crosstown rival Manchester City’s two-year ban from UEFA competition – as well as coming off a sweep in this season’s Manchester Derby – they are currently in position to make it to Champions League next season, though they only lead Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United by two points for that all important fifth place position.
LASK is currently in first place at the end of the “preliminary round,” and will be advancing to the championship round once play resumes in Austria. They’ve lost only twice this season in domestic action, and should be favored to repeat their performance last season that landed them in the Champions League. They begin the championship round with a six-point advantage over Red Bull Salzburg, and should be favored in most of their remaining matches this season.
Never Tell Me the Odds
As mentioned above, Manchester United is the current favorite to win it all, doing so in 19% of FiveThirtyEight simulations. That dominant position also gives them the leg up in this matchup, as they are seen advancing in 78% of simulations of the round, and 50% of simulation for this match.
The home club definitely has their work cut out for them, especially with no home supporters in the stadium to cheer them on. However, chances are that next week’s rubber match at Old Trafford will also be behind closed doors, but we’ll try to get through this one first before we start worrying about that. LASK will look to keep things close and hopefully head into leg two in a position to fight through for the win.
Either way, the clubs will be trying their hardest to advance to the quarterfinals next month, though with COVID-19 racing across Europe, who knows what could happen. The match could be a chance for the clubs’ supporters to put that behind them – at least for 90 minutes or so – even if it means they have to watch it on television.
Until next time…