Manchester United return to UEFA Europa League action when they face Real Sociedad at the Juventus Stadium in Turin in the round of 32 first leg on Thursday evening. United exited the group stages of the UEFA Champions League back in December, falling into the Europa League and face a tough test against the Spanish side, who sit fifth in the La Liga table this season, 16 points adrift of league leaders Atletico Madrid. United started well in the Champions League with victories over Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig but fell foul to Istanbul Basaksehir in the third match of the group. Weeks later, United beat the Turkish side in the second group match against them, falling foul to both PSG and Leipzig which saw them finish third in the group.
Real Sociedad started in the group stages of the Europa League this season, drawing Napoli, AZ Alkmaar and HNK Rijeka in the group. They beat Rijeka 1-0 in the first group stage match, and were beaten by 1-0 Napoli in the second. Then came a 1-0 win over AZ followed by three draws; one with AZ (0-0), Rijeka (2-2) and Napoli (1-1) which saw the Spanish side reach the round of 32 stage in the competition by finishing in second place in the group – two points behind Napoli who topped the group. It is not great that United are back in the Europa League again this season as the playing matches on a Thursday and a Sunday can upset the balance and United would be better qualifying for the Champions League by finishing in the top four of the Premier League.
How United have faired against Real Sociedad in European competition.
United and Real Sociedad have met twice in the history of both clubs. This happened in the UEFA Champions League during the 2013/14 season whilst David Moyes was managing the club. The meetings happened in the group stages of the competition with United winning the first meeting 1-0, which was played at Old Trafford with the only goal of the game scored by Iñigo Martínez’s own goal. The second group stage match was a 0-0 draw played at the Estadio Anoeta. In the first match, only three players remain at the club; David De Gea and Phil Jones are the only players still at the club and Michael Carrick, who is now on the coaching staff. Jones and De Gea also featured in the second match between the two clubs.
United are undefeated against the Spanish side, winning one match and drawing the other, scoring one goal and keeping two clean sheets. Real Sociedad have lost just seven competitive matches this season, five in La Liga, one in the Copa del Rey and one in the Europa League. United have lost eight matches this season; four in the Premier League, one in the Carabao Cup and three in the Champions League. Both teams are flying high in their relevant leagues this season, with United in second place and Real Sociedad in fifth also both teams are still in cup competitions; Copa del Rey and the Emirates FA Cup, also featuring in the knockout stages of European competition.
Here is my predicted starting XI to face Real Sociedad in the UEFA Europa League at the Juventus Stadium on Thursday evening…
Goalkeeper: Dean Henderson
Dean Henderson deserves to play more matches for United as the main goalkeeper. The dire form of David De Gea this season is worrying and he does not tend to help himself the majority of the time. Henderson is a rookie compared to De Gea but he has the talent and ability to break through and become the number one goalkeeper for the club. It is a long time since a youth player has come through the ranks and became the number one goalkeeper for the club and that could rest with Henderson in the future. Whilst De Gea plays the majority of matches in the Premier League, Henderson has largely played in the cup competitions. This match being a first leg should see Solskjaer taking a risk and allowing Henderson to carve a future for himself at the club.
Defenders: Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Eric Bailly, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw
United’s defence needs some tweaking to find the best way to get through the current season. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw are both in good form, so should be kept in the team as they offer so much going forward, especially when United are on the attack in pretty dominant in the opposition half. Harry Maguire is a player that has been slated for a lot this season, and despite some calling for hims to be dropped, I feel it would show the weakness in defence even more. Granted, he’s not an outspoken captain or very vocal a lot of the time but he has helped United improve in some areas. Eric Bailly should be back in the team as I believe he can offer more than Victor Lindelof in defence, which could be good for United moving forward.
Midfield: Scott McTominay, Fred
With Paul Pogba injured, United have few options in midfield. Donny van de Beek being out of action through a muscular problem also means that Solskjaer has three options in the central midfield area with is Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic. For this match, the energy of both Fred and McTominay would be much better in the pivot, if Solskjaer does continue playing the 4-2-3-1 formation. It is a shame that players such as Pogba and Van de Beek will miss this match, as especially for the latter, it would be beneficial for him to get some minutes on the pitch, starting matches, which will allow him to develop some kind of form which is lacking in his progress at the club this season. Donny van de Beek is a wonderful player and needs minutes. Will he get them?
Attacking Midfield: Amad Diallo, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford
Bruno Fernandes has scored 19 goals, assisting a further 12 goals for his club. To be involved in 31 goals so far this season is astonishing. When he’s not on the pitch for United, the club struggles to move forward and grind out results. Even when he’s not in great form, he still has the ability and determination to get stuck in and find something for United. His goal against West Bromwich Albion at the weekend showed just that as he struggled to inspire United for large proportions of the match. Fernandes is normally flanked by Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford, but for this match, Greenwood should be playing further forward with Amad Diallo starting on the right flank for the club, his debut for the first team.
Forwards: Mason Greenwood
Mason Greenwood has the ability, drive and sheer determination succeed at United. He has recently signed a new long-term contract which will see him remain at the club until at least 2025, although there was an option for a further year to be added on. Granted, he has not scored many goals this season, finding the back of the net four times, also assisting a further five times. However, that might be because he has been playing as a winger on the right, rather than a forward, which is his favoured position. With Edinson Cavani out of this match with muscular problems, I feel that Greenwood has much better form than Anthony Martial, who has been terrible lately. Greenwood could well shock the world once again with his ability. He has it in him.
Substitutes: David De Gea, Lee Grant; Victor Lindelof, Alex Telles, Brandon Williams, Axel Tuanzebe; Juan Mata, Daniel James, Nemanja Matic, Shola Shoretire; Anthony Martial
Solskjaer named a 22-man squad for the Europa League clash with Real Sociedad at the Juventus Stadium in Turin ons Thursday evening, meaning 11 players will be on the bench and up to five substitutions can be made during the match. David De Gea and Lee Grant will be on the bench as the other goalkeepers, if Henderson starts. In defence, Victor Lindelof, Alex Telles and Brandon Williams will be available should they be needed. In midfield, Juan Mata, Daniel James, Nemanja Matic and Shola Shoretire, who has been given a chance at first team level inn this competition, could have an impact. In attack, Anthony Martial, who badly needs to up his firm, should be able to be called upon, should United fall short in attack against the Spanish side.
Written by John Walker