Manchester United’s exit at the hands of Sevilla in the Champions League Round of 16 in the 2017-18 season was a low point for many fans. The performance over the two legs was subdued and then-United boss Jose Mourinho’s reaction after the game only exacerbated the situation.
Mourinho’s post-match presser and his football heritage rant after the game alienated Manchester United fans. Many believe that the start of the Portuguese’s endgame as Manchester United manager began with the limp defeat against Sevilla in March 2018.
Manchester United have come a long way since that night. The squad look happier under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and they have been playing better football over the last few months.
Solskjaer is eyeing his first trophy as Manchester United manager but Sevilla stand between his side and a European final. Can Paul Pogba and group exorcise the ghosts of that March evening at Old Trafford in 2018?
#1 Solskjaer has a decision to make in defensive midfield
Fred failed to grab his opportunity when he started against FC Copenhagen in the quarter-finals on Monday night. The Brazilian was ineffective and was eventually replaced by Nemanja Matic midway through the first half.
Matic’s progressive passing and positioning sense is an asset in defensive midfield and he allows Manchester United to recycle the ball better in the middle of the park. But at 32, his legs are gone and he struggles against teams which press high.
The Serbian is also less mobile due to his age and Sevilla’s Ever Banega might relish his duel with Matic in the middle of the park. The Argentine is the creative hub of the Spanish side and a lot will depend on Manchester United stopping him from ticking on Sunday.
Will Ole Gunnar Solskjaer go with Matic and bank on his experience to handle the situation or opt for a mobile Scott McTominay to keep Banega under check? The Scotland international will add more energy but he doesn’t have the passing range of his more experienced Serbian team-mate.
This is one conundrum Solskjaer will have to solve ahead of Sunday’s semi-final clash.
#2 Sevilla’s record in the Europa League should give them confidence
Sevilla finished fourth in La Liga behind Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid and are far from being pushovers in Europe. In Julen Lopetegui, they have a manager who is eager to prove himself after his failure at Real Madrid and a team well-drilled in nullifying opposition strengths.
But what should worry Manchester United the most is their Europa League record. Sevilla have won the tournament on every occasion they have reached the quarter-finals of the competition.
The Basque outfit will be the toughest test Manchester United have faced in the competition thus far. In Ever Banega, they have a creative midfielder of genuine class who can unlock any defences and in Diego Carlos, they have one of the most wanted centre-backs in European football.
#3 Attack will be Manchester United’s best form of defence
At their best this season, Manchester United have been a free-flowing team to watch. Their front three have the pace and goals in them to instil fear into any defence in Europe.
Manchester United have done better against low blocks this season following the arrival of Bruno Fernandes. But earlier in the season they showed a penchant of surrendering possession and depending on hitting teams on the counter.
They have beaten Manchester City three times this season with that method and Sevilla are one of the sides who enjoy keeping hold of the ball.
They had 75 percent possession against Wolves in the quarter-final and have averaged 66.3 percent possession in the competition this season. Adama Traore’s run against their defence showed that pace on the counter could hurt them.
Manchester United have the pace to break freely against the Spanish side.
Expect Manchester United to sit back, look to press in order to win the ball in dangerous areas and then play on the counter.
#4 The clash will be a battle of the two backlines
Despite the attacking talent in both sides, the result of the game could come down to the defenders.
Manchester United have kept eight clean sheets in their last 11 matches and goalkeeper Sergio Romero didn’t have a save to make against FC Copenhagen in the quarter-finals.
But there has been a persistent feeling that a better team could create more against a back-four, who have looked both solid and fragile in parts of the campaign.
Sevilla are pretty stingy at the back as well. They have kept seven clean sheets in their last ten games and they have conceded just one goal in their last eight games in all competitions. The Spanish side are also unbeaten since early February.
#5 Manchester United need to break their semi-final duck
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the first Manchester United manager since Sir Alex Ferguson to take the club to three semi-finals of cup competitions in one season. Under the Norwegian, Manchester United have developed the happy habit of getting deep into tournaments.
However, that has been their ceiling thus far. They produced a woeful performance at home in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final tie against Manchester City and a good showing in the second leg at the Etihad was not enough to reach the final.
They were downright atrocious against Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final and squandered one more opportunity of reaching another cup final.
The Red Devils are desperate to break their run of semi-final defeats on Sunday. But they will be facing a Sevilla side who are unbeaten since February.
Solskjaer will need to make sure that his players are prepared both physically and mentally against a team who know how to win knockout games in Europe.
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