As reigning Portuguese champions, Benfica were an ideal pick from the top seeds in the group draw back in August. One of two teams in Lisbon and the country’s most successful, United have frequently faced them, most recently in 2011 as well as the victorious European Cup final against Eusébio and co. in 1968. Portugal is actual United’s 5th most visited country but until now it was one that had eluded me.
The last few months of European football have been full of both elation and realisation for United; Europa League glory in May followed by a stark reminder of the quality of teams we’ll have to face this season after the Super Cup final against Madrid. Fast forward to next May and it’s the final in Kiev, Ukraine.
It’s probably fair to say that one of the least anticipated games of the season is one that usually comes first – not all, or just any, but the “curtain-raiser” of the English season, the Community Shield. Few really remember the outcome of this game between the previous season’s league and cup winners, and it’s rarely acknowledged as a trophy, even if it does kick the season off positively as United experienced last year.
Ahead of our trip to Macedonia for the UEFA Super Cup, I spoke to some local fans who run the website Manchester is my Heaven. Here’s a copy of the Q&A I did with them which was first published (in Macedonian) here.
After last year’s efforts the 2016/17 European season felt like it had a lot more to offer, even if was to be spent solely in the Europa League. Despite remaining the only competition United had never won, the early prognosis was that it was the least important trophy up for grabs in Mourinho’s first season, with the league an obvious priority and other cup wins simply a bonus.
So we made it. It was a tense final 10 minutes in the semi final 2nd leg against Celta Vigo with all kinds of drama, but a (familiar) 1-1 draw saw us through to the final in Stockholm. For months now our season has become more and more centred around progression in the Europa League as means to qualify for the Champions League. The final would be our 15th game in this year’s tournament with just AFC Ajax standing in the way of a return to the heights of European football.
The last time United lost at home in Europe was under Fergie against Madrid 4 years ago, and we’ve won all 5 matches at Old Trafford this season. After a late goal away at Anderlecht there was a lot to do to make it through to the semi-finals; the return leg treated us to yet another draw before a relieving late winner in extra time from Rashford. It’s not been an entirely convincing Europa League run but we’re just two games away from the final now with our next opponents Celta Vigo.
The Europa League has provided a real mixed bag of trips for United this season, with the competition’s practice of squeezing in an extra knock-out round adding further complexities. It meant that the game in Rostov was one too many for me, coming just 13 days after the draw – which itself was 12 hours after we’d got home from Saint-Etienne! Thankfully United negotiated another tricky visit to Russia (the club even paying for fans visas) and made it through to quarter finals to face Anderlecht of Belgium, a team prominent in our history.
The knockout stages are what cup competitions are all about. The intensity of each tie really steps up as only the best teams remain, with a win taking you that bit closer to the final. After a slightly shaky start United qualified for the last 32 of the Europa League with a final group game win in Odessa. Following what was for once rightly dubbed the ‘group of death’, with some long trips and and intense situations, United were treated to a match much closer to home; Saint-Etienne, France’s most successful football team.
Across a season of European football I usually get to all but one of United’s games on the continent. Whilst I’d love to travel every time it really comes down to a cost and time-off-work decision between two of the three group games; this year I opted for the match against Zorya Luhansk ahead of a return to Istanbul for Fenerbahce.