Manchester United face tough semi-final test against Europa League specialists Sevilla
Spanish side aiming to triumph in European football's second-tier cup competition for a sixth time
The message came loud and clear last week from a group of Real Betis fans I first met in Spain when covering the Sevilla v Manchester United Champions League game in 2018.
“Is there anything we can do to help stop them winning another trophy?” they asked. “We’re desperate and what we fear most about them is that they have the mentality to keep winning.”
Betis are the best-supported club in Seville, Spain’s third biggest city of 800,000, but they do not win trophies. Sevilla do and the team which won nothing between 1948 and a 2006 Europa League have not stopped since.
Five times they have lifted Europe’s second-tier cup competition and they’re aiming for a sixth.
Sevilla have beaten English sides Middlesbrough (2006) and Liverpool (2016) in previous finals and they knocked Wolves out in the quarter-final last week to set up Sunday’s one off semi-final against United in Cologne.
The winners meet Inter Milan or Shakhtar Donetsk next week in the same near empty stadium.
Sevilla, under former Spain and – very briefly – Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui, are the only Spanish team left in the European competitions the country has dominated so far this century.
Whatever happens on Sunday, there will be few changes. Sevilla continue to recruit shrewdly under sporting director Monchi, continue to be well-organised and they are undefeated in 19 post lockdown games.
Like United, the team which finished fourth in La Liga, level on points with third placed Atletico Madrid and behind Real Madrid and Barca, also concede few goals.
Those teams above Sevilla all exited Europe in recent weeks and it is in Europe where Sevilla thrive.
They know they are not going to be able to win La Liga or the Champions League against far richer foes, but the Europa has become their own and every time they have reached the semi-final stage, they have gone on to win it.
United know all about the Andalusians. Aside from Rio Ferdinand’s testimonial, the two teams did not meet until the 2018 Champions League encounter, one remembered as the beginning of the end for Jose Mourinho as United manager.
The Portuguese talked down his side’s chances before both legs and said defeat at the last-16 stage was "nothing new for the club" after his team had been eliminated.
United were ultra defensive in Spain and, thanks to David de Gea, survived an onslaught to draw 0-0. Sevilla fans were baffled why United refused to attack or why Paul Pogba did not start the game.
United fans were equally confused as their side were outplayed at Old Trafford in the second leg, with the home fans hushed. It was only when substitute Wassim Ben Yedder scored twice, the first after 75 minutes, that the home team showed urgency.
Mourinho blamed unrealistic expectations at Old Trafford after the European exit, but it was clear that there were issues.
When one fan asked him in Manchester the following day why Pogba was in and out of the team, Mourinho told him he felt he had to play him because he cost so much money.
Mourinho, who had only signed an extended contract at the start of 2018, lost his job at the end of that disappointing year.
This occasion offers more optimism for United, but United started slowly against FC Copenhagen in Monday’s quarter-final before improving and overcoming the Danes with an extra-time Bruno Fernandes penalty.
The Portuguese, who started this season playing in the Europa League for Sporting Lisbon, has scored more goals and made more assists than any other player in the competition, but, like his teammates, he has lacked the energy shown after lockdown.
United started slowly in both previous ties against Sevilla, too, but Solskjaer is confident.
“It’s important to start well, we talk about it, we've practised and prepared for a good start,” he said.
“Against good teams, if you start on the back foot, if you don't get the first touches or the first tackle, you go searching a little bit when you’re playing against a team full of quality.
"If you don’t get touches of the ball it will be hard. We’ll have to see how the game pans out, but who gets the first goal is important in games like this.”
Solskjaer was sounding confident. “We’ve had a few good days of recovering and prepared,” he said of a rare six-day break. “Physically, we’re ready and mentally we’re ready. We have to be clever and creative. They’re well organised, aggressive and press with very good individuals.”
Sevilla are captained by Jesus Navas and usually play a 4-3-3 system, with the former Manchester City player at right-back.
They did not have a difficult run until they met Roma in the last 16 and then Wolves in the last eight, but are looking solid. United, who’ve beaten three of the Spanish clubs they’ve met in European finals need to be ready.
“It’s time to step up,” said Solskjaer who took his side to semi-final defeats in the League and FA Cups this season, “And we’ve already learnt that it’s very painful to lose a semi-final.”
Updated: August 16, 2020 08:52 AM