In this new series, I’m going to compare and contrast Manchester United’s Champions League opponents, before each knockout round. The two sides will be compared on the basis of their teams, broken down into categories: goalkeeper, defence, midfield, attack, and finally, the respective managers. Both teams will be given a score on 10 for each category, for a total of 50. These scores will be arrived at by my own, proprietary, secret formula (which I’m soon hoping to sell to Opta or some such, and retire to the Bahamas), incorporating everything from recent form and quality of the individuals to pitch size, potential weather conditions, timing of the games et cetera and so on. Evidently, this is solely my opinion; everyone is free to disagree with me, as this is just a (un)scientific way to predict the outcome of the tie.
United’s first appearance in the knockout rounds of the Champions League since the dark days of David Moyes sees them face Sevilla, who have made the step up to the big boys’ club over the last couple of years, after growing tired of winning the Europa League ad nauseam. United look to have the upper hand, but recent iffy form, in addition to Sevilla’s fearsome home record (they have only lost one game at home in over a year), and the general unpredictability of a cup knockout game, make this an intriguing tie; especially since it is the first time these sides are meeting competitively.
Here’s how the two sides match up to each other:
Manchester United: United have again been the beneficiaries of a near-flawless campaign from David de Gea; the Spanish #1 with a legitimate claim to being the best in the world at the moment. De Gea is in the running for a Premier League Golden Glove this season, having kept more clean sheets (15) than anybody in England, and indeed, he is second only to Jan Oblak of Atletico Madrid across the top 5 European leagues. De Gea has the ability to single-handedly win a game for United, as witnessed most recently when he made an astonishing 14 saves in the game against Arsenal. With his ability to pull off world-class saves consistently, United have a considerable safety net in case their defence is breached. 9.5/10
Sevilla: Sevilla’s #1 is Sergio Rico, the 24-year old Spaniard, who has occasionally been De Gea’s understudy for Spain. While he does not possess the quality of his compatriot, Rico is a competent stopper, with an ability to concentrate for long periods in order to make the save when required. He is not commanding enough in the air though, a weakness which could be exploited by United. Rico has been let down by his defence this season, keeping only 7 clean sheets in the 18 games he has played in La Liga, while making a competent 2.0 saves/game. Similar numbers in the Champions League and Copa del Rey suggest that Sevilla’s defenders are not affording him enough protection this season, and these could be a long couple of nights for the Spaniard if they do not get their act together. 6.5/10
Manchester United: Oddly for a Mourinho side, United’s defence has looked shaky on a number of occasions this season. While they possess an excellent defensive record, having conceded the fewest goals and kept the most clean sheets in the Premier League so far, the defence has been vulnerable at set-pieces and while defending aerial balls. Lack of consistency in selection has not helped; their best defender, Eric Bailly, the best defender at the club, has missed most of the season, although he returned to action in the FA Cup game against Huddersfield, and may play a part in one or both legs of this tie. Phil Jones, the next best defender, is unavailable, at least for the first leg, which means another outing for the unconvincing Chris Smalling, whose lack of quality on the ball has severely hindered United’s buildup play this season. Victor Lindelof has looked far more assured in the Champions League than domestically this season, and his passing ability from the back could prove crucial in a tie like this. The fullbacks look in better shape; Antonio Valencia should return, having had an excellent season so far, while Ashley Young or Luke Shaw provide solid options on the left regardless of whoever is picked. United possess an excellent defensive unit; however, one that is prone to mistakes and lapses in concentration, which may prove costly. 8/10
Sevilla: Sevilla’s defensive record has been atrocious this season; they’ve already conceded 35 goals in the league, only three more than bottom-placed Malaga, and by far the worst record amongst the top-six in Spain. They’ve conceded five goals twice in recent games, losing the Seville derby 5-3 to Real Betis in Vincenzo Montella’s first home game in charge in January. Coke has not been properly replaced at right-back since he left, with Jesus Navas being converted from a winger since he rejoined the club in the summer. Navas has understandably struggled with this new role, while centre-backs Gabriel Mercado, Simon Kjaer and Clement Lenglet are competent, but suffer from a chronic lack of pace, which could be decisive, given United’s pace on the counter. Sergio Escudero is of a similar profile at left-back, while captain Nicolas Pareja is best kept in reserve in case the first-choice centre-backs cannot play. United should fancy their chances against what is a defensive unit lacking confidence and form. 6/10
Manchester United: Another area where United have been struggling in recent games. There are doubts as to whether a midfield two or three best utilize the talents of United’s midfielders; however, it is quite clear that Paul Pogba cannot play at his best in a two, especially against top-class opposition. Pogba is likely to return to the side after missing the last game through illness, and given Mourinho’s preference for solidity in away games, United should play a three-man midfield. This would mean Nemanja Matic and Pogba being most likely joined by one of Michael Carrick or Scott McTominay, as Ander Herrera works his way back to full fitness. United have one of the world’s best midfielders in Pogba when he is on form and utilised correctly, capable of quite literally running a game. However, his defensive shield, Matic, has looked jaded in recent weeks, and may struggle against a lively Sevilla midfield. Carrick will bring experience and composure to the side, while McTominay would add bite and energy to a midfield that has been lacking those qualities in recent weeks. United’s midfield unit is quite solid and the individuals complement each other to a large extent; expect them to be able to control proceedings over the two legs. 7.5/10
Sevilla: Sevilla possess a quality midfield, with individuals capable of controlling the tempo and nature of contests. The most notable of these is the Argentinian schemer, Ever Banega, who returned to Seville this summer after an unhappy year at Inter Milan. Banega’s strengths lie in his ability to pick a pass; he can thread the eye of a needle with the accuracy of his through balls, and has been in good form this season as well. He has been injured, however, only returned to first-team training this week, and therefore may not play from the start. Steven N’Zonzi and Guido Pizarro will probably be the midfield axis of choice in his absence; N’Zonzi has had a superb couple of years in Seville, using his physical characteristics to dominate midfield, along with his underrated ability on the ball. His displays earned him a maiden France call-up this season, while Pizarro will be the more defensive of the duo, expected to shield the defence. Neither possess the subtlety of Banega, however, and his absence will have a significant impact on Sevilla’s attempts to control the game. Ahead of them, Franco Vazquez plays as a #10, holding his position centrally and acting as a reference point for his midfielders and forwards to play around. Sevilla’s midfield should be able to match up to United, and it will be an intriguing battle between the two units. 7.5/10
Manchester United: United certainly have the big names in this department, with Alexis Sanchez’s arrival only adding to the star power. Sanchez has had a quiet start to life at Old Trafford, but he was brought in specifically to provide a cutting edge in games like these, and his quality means that one would be very surprised if he fails to have an impact over the two legs. One of Anthony Martial or Juan Mata is expected to start on the opposite flank, with the Frenchman probably ahead on current form. He will bring pace and unpredictability to the attack, although he has looked a lot less effective playing off the right since Sanchez took his spot on the left. Mata would bring more guile and composure; however, he looks unlikely to start, especially away from home. Romelu Lukaku is enjoying a good run of goalscoring form, to go with the recent improvement in his link-up play, and his strength and pace should be a handful for the Sevilla backline. With the likes of Rashford, Lingard and potentially Ibrahimovic available in reserve, United’s attacking firepower should overcome the Spaniards. 9/10
Sevilla: Montella has recently arrived at his first-choice wingers: Pablo Sarabia and Joaquin Correa. Both of these players hold their positions to provide width and stretch play, while arriving at the back post in the event of a cross from the opposite side. As mentioned earlier, Vazquez plays as the central attacking pivot, while Sevilla possess one of the deadliest strikers in the Champions League this term in Wissam Ben Yedder. The Frenchman has six goals in as many games this season; however, Montella has favoured the pacier Luis Muriel since his appointment. Muriel’s ability to run the channels and combine with Vazquez and the wingers is in contrast to Ben Yedder’s more static style of play, but having just recovered from injury, it may be Ben Yedder who gets the chance to increase his goal tally. Sevilla’s attack are certainly dangerous, and will pose questions of a tentative United rearguard. 7/10
Manchester United: Jose Mourinho has improved United over last season; however, this has been overshadowed by Manchester City’s procession to the title, with the cups being the only chance of any silverware for the Portuguese this season. United are still a level below the very best European clubs, but Mourinho thrives on beating the odds with the underdog, as his previous triumphs with Porto and Inter Milan show. There have been questions raised about his tactical choices recently, most notably about his usage of Paul Pogba, and while Mourinho continues to possess enough force of personality to counter such questioning, results will ultimately determine perceptions, and hence he will need to get his decisions spot on over both legs of this tie. He led United to the Europa League last season; fans hope that /e can repeat that magic in the midst of the elite this term. 8/10
Sevilla: Vincenzo Montella had a terrible start at the Andalusian outfit, losing his first two league games, of which his first home game was the 5-3 loss in the derby to Betis. He has stabilised the club somewhat since then, notwithstanding a 5-1 hammering away to Eibar as well. Sevilla have reached the Copa del Rey final under the Italian, who has brought stability to the lineup after the constant rotation under his predecessor Eduardo Berizzo. He took over a squad bereft of belief in December, one which had lost its best players as well as the influential sporting director Monchi in the summer; all told, Montella has done a decent job. A win over United would send his stock spiralling. 7/10
Manchester United: 41.5/50
While Sevilla possess individual quality in places, and their impressive home record means a result is not a foregone conclusion for United, there is a clear difference in overall quality between the two sides which should see the side from Manchester progress from this tie.