SEVILLA’s 2-1 victory in Köln was not only a reminder that Manchester United are far from the finished article, it was a warning that the UEFA Champions League, for which they have qualified, will be a tough exercise for a “work in progress” team.
United were beaten by a club that knows all about Europa League success. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side may have dominated, but they didn’t have the savvy of Sevilla but were convinced they should have won. Harry Maguire, for example, speaking after the game, seemed as bitter as the oranges that come from the region to make marmalade.
United blew it, no question, but they had a distinct lack of punch up front, for all the running of the mercurial duo, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. In two games in Germany, United failed to score a single goal in open play. It was the excellent Bruno Fernandes who got on the scoresheet, hopping, skipping and jumping his way to two penalties.
Where would United be without their penalties? Fernandes converted their 22nd of the 2019-20 season against Sevilla, the highest number of penalties among clubs in the top five leagues. They would be at least seven points worse off without key spot kicks in the Premier League.
United’s defeat, just 24 hours after Manchester City tumbled out of the Champions League to Lyon, raises questions about the strength of the Premier League. After 2018-19 when the league provided all four European finalists, adding fuel to the belief the Premier League stands astride the global game, this season’s performance suggests the reality is less glittering than the hype would have us belief. Liverpool surprisingly went out of the Champions League to Atlético Madrid, Tottenham were beaten by Leipzig and City fell to Lyon. Only Chelsea were beaten by a “superior” opponent after winning only one of their three home games in the group stage. In the Europa, Arsenal were eliminated by Olympiakos, while Sevilla beat both Wolves and United.
United’s recent record in Europe has been characterised by failure – some unexpected – against Spanish teams. With the exception of the 2017 Europa League triumph in Stockholm, when they disposed of Celta Vigo on route, United have been knocked-out by Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla (twice).
Sevilla are one of the cluster of clubs outside the elite group that take the Europa very seriously and hence, they have won it five times between 2006 and 2016. Their last victory was against Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Like all Spanish clubs, they are in the slipstream of the big two, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and this means some clubs underestimate their quality.
They finished fourth in the La Liga table, losing only six games and conceding just 34 goals. A 15-game unbeaten run that straddled the lockdown meant they qualified for the UEFA Champions League. They are now challenging Atlético Madrid for the position of Spain’s third club and they have some outstanding players, such as Diego Carlos and Jules Koundé, who will doubtless be attracting offers before Sevilla return to Spain after the Europa League final. The German experiment has not only been a fascinating set of football matches, it has also been a shop window, after all.