Manchester United and Liverpool may typically consider the Europa League to be beneath them, but with a qualifying place for next year’s Champions League up for grabs, attitudes could change.
Liverpool were unbeaten in their Europa League group, while Manchester United surprisingly crashed out of their Champions League section with Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven progressing.
England’s last representative in this season’s Europa League is Tottenham, who are likely to prioritise the Premier League title race, with Mauricio Pochettino’s men two points off the top.
But how seriously will United and Liverpool take the competition, which was previously the butt of all manner of cheap jokes?
A 2-1 defeat at Sunderland on Saturday left Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal admitting the Europa League may be his team’s best route into next year’s Champions League. Captain Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata have also urged the club to target Europa League glory, while an opening trip to Midtjylland should provide a straightforward passage to the next round.
“It’s going to be tough to win the Premier League from the position we’re in now, so I think our main aim is to get into that top four and it’d be great to win the Europa League,” said Rooney. “It wasn’t our aim at the start of the season, but it’s where we are now.”
The Danish Superliga winners have not played a competitive fixture for two months but they should not be underestimated by United, as Midtjylland have already beaten Southampton this season. Midtjylland were founded in 1999 and this is the furthest they have ever been in Europe.
United’s struggles this season are well-documented but one bright spark has been the fine performances of young French striker Anthony Martial, who has hit 10 goals in his first season in English football. Other young starlets like Cameron Borthwick-Jackson have also impressed, while Chris Smalling has stepped into Rio Ferdinand’s boots and is now leading United’s defence.
Van Gaal’s position as United’s manager may well be coming under threat, but the Dutchman previously won the UEFA Cup and Champions League as Ajax’s coach. A Europa League title would also make Manchester United only the fifth club to have won all three major UEFA trophies.
Jürgen Klopp returns to Germany as his Liverpool side meet Bavarian outfit Augsburg for the first time in the club’s history. The Reds qualified top of Group B with 10 points, but they only won two of their six Europa League matches, struggling in particular in front of goal.
It is therefore lucky Augsburg have such a poor record, losing two of their three European home fixtures this season, those games featuring 14 goals. Augsburg’s Raúl Bobadilla hit six goals in the group stage, making him the competition’s joint top scorer alongside Athletic Bilbao’s Aritz Aduriz.
The return to fitness of striker Daniel Sturridge has boosted Klopp’s side and the England international was on target in a simple 6-0 demolition of Aston Villa on Sunday, a game in which Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho excelled, providing a trio of assists for his teammates.
Klopp has tended to rotate his squad heavily for cup competitions this season, which could mean young players such as Brad Smith, Jon Flanagan and Jordon Ibe get a chance to impress.
Ibe started four of Liverpool’s six Europa League group stage matches and was rated 7.33 by WhoScored. A trip to Augsburg to take on the Fuggerstädter could also come at a welcome time for struggling striker Christian Benteke, valued at £7.2m on Mondogoal, who has yet to score in 12 matches so far in 2016.
Tottenham have the toughest fixture of the English clubs, with a trip to take on Serie A high flyers Fiorentina, who knocked Pochettino’s men out at the same stage of the competition last year. La Viola went on to reach the Europa League’s semi-finals, where they were beaten by the tournament’s eventual champions Sevilla.
“We’re still in three competitions and we’re taking them all very seriously,” star striker Harry Kane said after Spurs won at Manchester City on Sunday to give their title hopes a huge boost. “We’ve got a big week ahead, a lot of midweek games coming up, so there is still a long way to go.”
A run of seven straight wins has got the White Hart Lane faithful excited, but the Europa League may still be Spurs’ best chance of winning some silverware this season. Tottenham were fifth in the Premier League when the group stage ended, but they are now second. Their chances are damaged by the fact they have won just one of their last five European away games, while Fiorentina have yet to concede a goal in five home encounters against English opposition.
Spurs are expected to give fringe players such as reserve full-backs Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier a chance to shine, while Son Heung-min could also come into contention for a rare start. The versatile South Korea international scored two goals and made four assists in the group stage and Nabil Bentaleb, Ryan Mason, Tom Carroll and Nacer Chadli may be involved too.