Now that the dust has settled on another European season it’s time for me to reflect on this year’s travels in the Champions League. Unlike the previous 2 seasons it was spent solely in the top tier of European football, and the for the first time in 4 years we made it to the knock out rounds. In United’s continued period of transition it represented progress, even if it was ultimately uninspiring, ending with the defeat at Old Trafford to Sevilla.
For the first time in 4 years United made it to the knockout stages of the Champions League, with 5 wins from 6 in a relatively straightforward group. Changes to the group seeding in recent years meant that finishing top still left us open to drawing a strong 2nd placed team, including Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus. Thankfully though we were paired with a new opponent and a trip to Seville.
The European season has been an enjoyable one for United this year; back in the Champions League again with 4 wins from 4 and 10 goals along the way. With us all but qualified for the knockout round a trip to Switzerland was almost a formality as we looked to secure top spot in the group, even if there were likely to be European giants waiting for us.
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 (http://manchesterismyheaven.com). Here’s a copy of the Q&A I did with them which was first published (in Macedonian) – http://manchesterismyheaven.com/ekskluzivno-intervju-dzoni-penington
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.