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.
2016/17 Europa League Final
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.
Tussle in Brussels
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.
When in Rhône
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.
United win away in Europe(!)
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.
Rotterdam, or anywhere
With the 2015/16 season ending in a disappointing 5th placed finish alongside an overdue cup final win, it meant United were once again bound for the Europa League. Winning the competition would guarantee entry to next years Champions League, a feat we couldn’t manage after being knocked out last season by Liverpool, though of course we’d hope for at least a top 4 finish this year. This season has started well (defeat to City aside) with Mourinho and exciting new signings largely looking good, whilst the first taste of European football takes us to Feyenoord in Rotterdam.
With this summers European Championships in France, a trip to China and an early start to the season with the Community Shield at Wembley, it’s felt like football hasn’t really stopped this year. For some teams in Europe it basically didn’t. Whilst the draw for the 2016/17 UEFA Europa League group stage took place on Friday, the tournament actually started 2 months ago for those in the 1st qualifying round at the end of June. Should any of those teams manage to make it all the way to the final, due to be hosted at Sweden’s Friends Arena in Solna, Stockholm, they’ll have been playing in the Europa League for 11 months. It’s no wonder the competition is considered so gruelling by many.
It was with a bit of a whimper that the 2015/16 European season ended against Liverpool, a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford not enough to turn around the defeat at Anfield. After being knocked down into the Europa League I’d come round to idea of a potential final in Basel, Switzerland, but it was not to be. Even more frustrating was that our conquerors were drawn to play Borussia Dortmund, a place I’ve longed to visit with United at their impressive Westfalenstadion.
The Luck of the Draw
From time to time, cup competitions can throw up a prize draw. After a slightly more convincing home leg against FC Midtjylland, United made it through to the last 16 of the Europa League. This made 15 potential opponents in the draw, being made less than 24 hours after the game on Thursday night with the tie to be played mid-March, the first leg just two weeks later. This aspect of knockout football is what brings much of the adrenaline to following United in Europe. Just two weeks to book flights, accommodation and plan a trip to the continent.