Manchester United found out their fate in the UEFA Europa League group stage draw for the 2016/17 season. Last season, United had to qualify for the UEFA Champions League from the play-off stage, beating Club Brugge 7-1 on aggregate to reach the group stages of the Champions League, where they did not qualify for the knockout stages, falling into the Europa League from the round of 32. United was drawn against Midtjylland from Denmark where they lost 2-1 away from home, winning 5-1 at Old Trafford to earn a place in the round of 16 where they faced Liverpool. United lost 2-0 at Old Trafford, drawing 1-1 at Anfield, exiting the competition at that stage with Liverpool meeting Sevilla in the final, losing 3-1 to the Spanish side, their third in a row. This season, United may not be happy about competing from the group stages of Europe’s secondary competition, but it is a trophy the club have never won, so Jose Mourinho may look into having a go at winning it now the winner’s gain UEFA Champions League qualification, which may come in handy should the race for top four be as competitive as it was last season.
Manchester United was the first team out of the draw and therefore placed in Group A where they would be joined by a team from Pot B, Pot C, and Pot D. Turkish side Fenerbahce joined United in Group A, which will be the first time Robin van Persie will face his former club, providing he remains at the club. Dirk Kuyt’s club, Feyenoord joined United and Fenerbahce in Group A. The final club to be drawn in the group was Zorya Luhansk or the Ukraine. It was a tough group for Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, and a group that United will need to work hard against in order to qualify for the knockout stages. Fenerbahce and Feyenoord will not be a pushover, and Zorya Luhansk, I am sure will be up for the challenge. Speaking of the draw and his clubs opposition, Mourinho said:
“There are groups in the Champions League that are very similar, so it is a good for that. We know that it will be a difficult group, but I think that is a good thing. If you have teams without expression then even the fans may not enjoy nights at Old Trafford. It is good for the fans and for the players because it will help motivation. It is also good for a competition that doesn’t have the same glamour as the Champions League. Having a team like Man United in the competition, playing matches against teams like Feyenoord and Fenerbahce – I do not have a vision about the Ukrainian team and their quality – is good for us.”
Here is what we know about Manchester United’s opposition in the UEFA Europa League this season:
The Turkish side managed by Dick Advocaat finished last season as runners-up in the Turkish Süper Lig, five points behind Besiktas. Former Manchester United and Feyenoord striker Robin van Persie is their star striker and will be looking forward to his return to Old Trafford and De Kuip. Last season the Dutch striker scored 16 goals in 42 appearances, which was not what I had expected, it being a poorer league than the Premier League, but I suppose after his injury problems, it was a good debut season for him. This season, Van Persie has played once, a 1-0 defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir. Fenerbahce qualified for the group stages of the Europa League with a 5-0 aggregate victory over Grasshoppers, and with the group they have been drawn in, it will only inspire them to reach the knockout stages of the competition. United have faced Fenerbahce in the Champions League four times; winning twice and losing twice. The most memorable victory being Wayne Rooney’s debut with him scoring a hat-trick with United winning 6-2 at Old Trafford. Twelve years since their last competitive match, both teams will be looking to make their opposition suffer.
The Dutch side managed by former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Giovanni van Bronckhorst finished third in the Eredivisie last season. They qualified for the group stages through their final league position, like United. They are another former side of Van Persie, who will find matches against both sides will tug on his heart-strings this season. Feyenoord finished 21 points behind eventual champions PSV Eindhoven, who finished two points clear of second-placed Ajax. Dirk Kuyt is their captain and the former Liverpool man is joined by another former Anfield player, Brad Jones. Tonny Vilhena, a player once linked to United will be one to watch, he made 25 appearances last season, scoring five goals and already has one goal in three appearances this season. Much like PSV last season, United’s Dutch opposition will be up for the challenge and will be tough to beat. United have met Feyenoord in the Champions League twice, back in 1997 beating them in both group stage matches; 2-1 at Old Trafford and 3-1 in Rotterdam, a stadium where United have a good history, beating Barcelona 2-1 in the 1991 Cup Winner’s Cup final.
The Ukrainian side managed by Yuriy Vernydub finished fourth in the Ukrainian Premier League last season, earning a Europa League group stage place, which would have gone to Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, but they have been banned from all UEFA competitions for three seasons starting this season. If that was not the case, they would have had to qualify, starting in the third round of the competition. United have never faced Zorya Luhansk, but have faced Ukrainian opposition before; Shakhtar Donetsk – winning 1-0 at home and drawing 1-1 away in the Champions League group stages in 2013 and Dynamo Kiev four times; twice in 2000 (0-0 draw away and 1-0 win at home) and in 2007 (4-2 win away and 4-0 win at home). Last season, striker Pylyp Budkivskyi was the club’s top scorer in the Ukrainian Premier League, scoring 14 goals and second in the entire league. Midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev scored eight goals and finished seventh top scorer in the league last season. As an unknown opponent, United will need to do their homework before the two sides meet. I am sure Jose Mourinho will be on to the task already.
Manchester United may have to be at their best in order to get through the group stage of the Europa League this season. Any other season, the teams in the group could have been in the Champions League, which makes it that little bit more exciting. Getting out of the group will be tough, and we will need to keep an eye on the Champions League as the third placed teams in the group fall into the Europa League, which will make the knockout stages tougher. We could see Arsenal and Manchester City fall into Europe’s secondary competition, even Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City, who knows. This season will be what it is. United do not really want to be in the Europa League, but with the final played at the Friends Arena in Solna, Stockholm, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s home country, perhaps United will aim to take advantage of the automatic Champions League place for the winner of the competition and rival Sevilla, who may fall back into the Europa League themselves and try to win it for a fourth successive time?