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.
It’s a real killer of a competition given the number of teams involved, with 55 nations represented from the preliminary round (in June), and then there’s the extra knockout round in March too. There’ll be an expectation for United to repeat the victorious 2016/17 season given we’re unlikely to really challenge for the League title this season, and the prospect of a new country and final in Gdańsk, Poland gives an added incentive.
The group stage matchdays for the 2019/20 UEFA Europa League will see United play on Thursday nights, again, on the following dates:
19th September – matchday one
3rd October – matchday two
24th October – matchday three
7th November – matchday four
28th November – matchday five
12th December – matchday six
With the round of 32 draw following on 16th December. The advantage of knowing the date for each game, which helps sort travel plans a lot quicker, is outweighed somewhat by the inconvenience of more Sunday league games during the season.
By the time the 5 rounds of qualifying had whittled the number of competitors down to 48, we were left with a few interesting potential opponents. APOEL of Nicosia, Cyprus were once again in the draw, as were Qarabağ FK of Baku, Azerbaijan and Astana of Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. Bulgaria, Hungary, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Serbia were other new potential destinations for me, as well as two chances to visit Austria in the form of Wolfsberger AC, and LASK Linz.
There were of course, more familiar destinations like Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, as well as plenty of opposition across western Europe. So what did the group stage draw, conducted by Ashley Cole and Paulo Ferreira, bring:
FC Astana – Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan
If there was one trip to quickly dismiss, it’d be the 3,000 mile flight to Astana, the first team drawn alongside us in Group L. Whilst it sounds like an exciting prospect and certainly a unique opportunity given we’ve never played here before, it’s just not so feasible with flights priced around £800 – including a changeover in either Istanbul or Frankfurt. That’s before even considering the intricacies of the city itself, and the likely minus temperature. A good comparison is our match in Rostov in 2017, which gave a lot less planning time in between knockout rounds, but saw around 50 United fans attend in total.
FK Partizan – Belgrade, Serbia
Probably the pick of the draw, with Serbia an exciting destination, not least because United last played there in 1966 under Busby. Red Star Belgrade were a potential opponent last season and one that many fans were hoping for due to their impressive fans and atmosphere, and Partizan should be no different. Flights for any of the matchdays were priced anywhere between £150-290 before the fixtures were announced; unsurprisingly this hasn’t changed much yet as the demand and rush to book may not be too high immediately. Unfortunately for me this clashes with a change in job so as things stand I’m unsure if I’ll be able to make it, fingers crossed I can sort it though.
AZ Alkmaar – Alkmaar, Netherlands
The final of our opponents, another new one too, is a much more manageable trip to the Netherlands and Alkmaar, just north of Amsterdam. An easier one for travel with various options available, flights to the capital between £82-114 for the matchdays ahead of confirmation, which then saw them jump up to around £160. I’ve nothing booked as things stand, with both Alkmaar and Belgrade trips due to be in October (the month I change jobs) it’s a little up in the air right now, but I’ll hopefully do one, if not both, of these trips.
The extra complication with this fixture is that the roof of Alkmaar ground collapsed earlier this year… It’s unlikely they’ll be playing in their stadium for our match and so could be moved to another city. Given Amsterdam is less than 30 miles away that seems the most logical option, but nothing has been confirmed as of yet. The Netherlands is a small enough country to travel around either way and so travel to Amsterdam is the best option anyway.
Like all UEFA draws, the waiting game is for the actual fixtures to be announced, which takes some negotiations between the clubs themselves. Rumours and leaks pop up on twitter but it’s always a gamble to book any travel too quickly, though it gives time to plan and check costs. It was around 3 hours later that they got officially confirmed and so fans started to move on bookings. Hopefully I’ll still be able to get a good deal when I book in the next few weeks.
Another positive announcement during the group stage draw was UEFA finally acknowledging the huge issue of inflated ticket prices. They confirmed that with immediate effect there’ll be a cap of €70 (£63.50) for Champions League away tickets and €45 (£41) for the Europa League. Possibly still same way to go, the Premier League away ticket cap is £30 and with TV and sponsorship revenues just as high for UEFA they should be able to do more. A step in the right direction none-the-less. So, onto booking at least one of these group games then.