A fairly convincing group stage saw United finish top, avoiding the difficulty of facing one of the seeded teams, Europa League group winners or stronger Champions League drop outs. Of 14 possible opponents there was a real mix of locations, with Germany the only country represented more than once with 3 teams. There were familiar foes in the form of Olympiacos, Shakhtar Donetsk and Cluj, as well as new potential trips to APOEL of Cyprus, Ludogorets of Bulgaria and Getafe of Spain.
The Europa League, for all it’s drawbacks, does guarantee trips to the more obscure parts of Europe, and the 2019/20 group stage draw didn’t disappoint. Sandwiched between a trip to Alkmaar, north of Amsterdam, and a 3,000 mile trek to Astana in Kazakstan, was a meaningful return to Belgrade.
England’s largest club stadium, Old Trafford, is home to the most successful team in the country, Manchester United. The 75,000 capacity ground, which is up there with Europe’s largest football stadiums, has been witness to countless triumphs over the decades. Millions of supporters travel to Old Trafford each season and there are plenty of reasons to visit.
The 2018/19 season was pretty forgettable for United and left us facing another season in the Europa League. Thankfully, with Watford losing the FA Cup Final to City, we avoided entering the competition at the second qualifying round at the end of July(!) Instead it’s straight into the group stages with a much kinder mid-September start, and three less ties to navigate.
Almost straight after our return from Oslo we were back on the road again, to Wales where this year’s pre-season concludes in Cardiff with a game against AC Milan. There’s been a couple of League games at the Cardiff City stadium over the past 6 years, but we haven’t visited the much more impressive Millennium Stadium (now thePrincipality Stadium) since the 2005 FA Cup Final, an undeserved defeat to Arsenal.
After a 2 and a half month break following the most underwhelming end to a season in years, United are back. Maybe not quite yet in the sense that we want; Ole has had a tough summer of rebuilding and the challenge this coming season will be to close the gap on Liverpool and City. A massive ask given we finished the season over 30 points behind them. It’s another year of the Europa League too, a competition we’d rather not be in but that we’d hope United can go all the way in.
Europe is home to some of the most famous world football stadiums and teams. A mix of modern and newly built stadia, and historic grounds which have evolved over the years. Football stadiums are now designed to meet the needs of a diverse crowd, with safe standing areas just as important to clubs as the concourse and facilities. For fans and the teams themselves, the atmosphere is the most important factor, to help performances and generally show support.
With the 2016/17 Europa League victory, United became the fifth team to win the UEFA ‘European Treble’ after Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Ajax and Juventus. It’s a feat that comprises of the Champions League, Europa League and Cup Winners Cup, and one that few teams can still achieve due to the latter competition being defunct.
One of the bigger debates relating to football fans currently is the topic of Safe Standing. With fans wanting to improve atmospheres in grounds, as well as allow for safer conditions, there’s a lot of momentum behind the campaign. It’s been debated in Parliament and more clubs are taking note of the clear advantages of introducing safe standing areas in stadiums.
For many English football fans there’s little chance to see their team play in European competition; it’s why the supporters at England away games are often from lower league teams. We’re lucky to be able to do that with United, seeing them play in so many countries whether in competitive matches or preseason friendlies.