The Red Devils take on Celta Vigo in the Europa League Semi-Finals at the Estadio Municipal de Balaídos on Thursday night.
Despite an underwhelming season in La Liga, Los Célticos have had some degree of success in both domestic and European cup competitions, with their recent win over Genk taking them to the Semi-Finals of a major UEFA competition for the first time in their 93-year history. Manchester United, on the other hand, are no strangers to the European stage. The club’s dominance across the continent has seen them face up against football’s elite, winning the Champions League no less than three times. The Europa League isn’t quite what United fans were hoping for, though they currently find their team as the bookies’ favourites to take home the trophy at 10/11, which would secure a place in next season’s Champions League. First, though, they must tackle Eduardo Berizzo’s Celta de Vigo.
Berizzo’s philosophy is very much akin to that of Pep Guardiola and Juanma Lillo; he believes in the power of possession football and relies on the ability of his trusted coaches to drill that philosophy into his players. Though excruciatingly inconsistent, Celta are capable of causing problems for stronger teams; as shown by their Copa del Rey victory against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in January and the subsequent loss to Alavés in the following round. Their high pressing and quick tempo system could work in United’s favour, however, as Mourinho may look to exploit the pace of Martial, Rashford and Lingard up front.
Manchester United are very much a work in progress with Mourinho at the helm. His defensive focus has seen them set a new club record with twenty-five games undefeated, resulting in just three losses in the Premier League this season. United have experienced similar fortunes in the Europa League, having strolled through the competition on the back of an outstanding Henrikh Mkhitaryan, while avoiding potential upsets in the Group Stage and Quarter-Finalists Anderlecht.
Injuries have plagued the Red Devils in recent weeks, and Mourinho will most likely look to frustrate Celta with men behind the ball. Jones, Smalling, Rojo and Bailly are all expected to miss Thursday’s match, leaving just one centre-back available in the form of Daley Blind. United will be forced to construct a makeshift backline which can deal with the threat of the powerful John Guidetti and in-form Iago Aspas. Celta, on the other hand, are currently enjoying an almost clean bill of health; with the only major loss being Ex-United starlet Giuseppe Rossi.
Los Célticos have worked hard to reach their first Europa League Semi-Final and will be going into Thursday night’s game with a huge psychological advantage over a battered United squad. Despite their lesser depth and ability (and price tags, which will no doubt be mentioned at every possible opportunity), Celta must not be underestimated. After Sunday’s disappointing result against relegation-bound Swansea, Champions League places seem all but out of United’s reach with Tottenham and Arsenal still left on the schedule, both away from home. The Europa League may be United’s only chance at securing Champion’s League football next season, thus the team must prioritise their efforts accordingly. With fatigue setting in, United cannot allow Celta to take a goal advantage into the second leg.
Expect a cagey affair, with both teams cancelling each other out for the vast majority of the first leg. Celta will look to exploit John Guidetti’s dominant physique against a smaller United back line, and will surely hope that their home advantage will give them the edge in a tight contest. Celta also rested a number of their starting eleven ahead of Thursday’s game. Quick transitions from defence to attack are a key part of Mourinho’s philosophy and can be used to open up the midfield and relieve the pressure on the back line. United have lacked decisiveness in front of goal in the past few months though, with Rashford and Mkhitaryan beginning to hit their stride, I fully expect the Red Devils to clinch an all-important away goal which would allow them to control the second leg at Old Trafford. My prediction? 1-1.