Manchester United return to Champions League action this evening, as they make the journey to southern Spain to face La Liga side Sevilla F.C. in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium for what is sure to prove to be a very difficult 1st leg game.
United come into the game following a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Huddersfield Town in the F.A. Cup Fifth Round on Saturday, a game in which leading striker Romelu Lukaku showed his worth to the side with two excellent finishes to decide the contest. Such quality from Lukaku may have been overlooked in the aftermath of the game, which was dominated by debate on the merits and drawbacks of the new Video Assistant Referee system, a system which referee Kevin Friend erroneously asked to intervene to help decide if Juan Mata was offside during the build-up to his subsequently disallowed goal at the end of the opening half. Thankfully the decision to disallow Mata’s effort ended up not being crucial to the outcome of the match.
The other main talking point for the media was the non-appearance (through a sudden illness) of star midfielder Paul Pogba in West Yorkshire, an absence which apparently caught Jose Mourinho unawares too, since he had provisionally named the Frenchman in his starting XI for the game. Pogba, at the time of writing, has trained with the rest of the 1st team squad ahead of tonight’s crucial fixture, and I would hope he is raring to go against the Andalusians.
Our opponents come into this tie having replaced their short-lived Argentinean manager Eduardo Berizzo with former A.S. Roma and Italy international striker Vincenzo Montella on 28th December 2017, and currently sit in 5th position in La Liga, having won 12 of their opening 24 fixtures; crucially though, Sevilla have only lost once at the Sanchez Pizjuan, ironically thumped 5-3 by hated city rivals Real Betis. They finished second in their Group phase table behind Liverpool, having famously recovered from a 0-3 half-time deficit to snatch a 3-3 draw in their head-to-head against the Merseysiders in Sevilla. They have a number of very dangerous players that United will need to keep close tabs on, none-more-so than French hitman Wissam Ben Yedder, who has scored quite a few goals in the Champions League already this season. Other notable talents include Danish centre-half Simon Kjaer, former Stoke City midfield dynamo Steven N’Zonzi, Spanish midfielder Pablo Sarabia, Italian winger Franco Vazquez and, most dangerous of all, Argentine ace Ever Banega, who cannot be left alone with the ball for even a second.
Whilst certainly looking an easier proposition than a Juventus or Real Madrid, Sevilla are no mugs and I expect a tough battle this evening.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (very fluid 4-3-3)
GK: David de Gea – David sat out the win at Huddersfield on Saturday, rested by Jose Mourinho with tonight’s game in mind. As ever, the world’s best goalkeeper will present a formidable barrier for the likes of Ben Yedder and Joaquin Correa to breach.
RB: Antonio Valencia– Tony has the ‘big game’ experience to handle what is sure to be a frenzied, hostile atmosphere in Sevilla, and will look to get forward to support our counter-attacks when possible. He missed the trip to Huddersfield on Saturday, so I hope he is fit to return this evening.
LB: Luke Shaw– Luke once again proved his worth with a hard-working, determined display against the Terriers, who targeted United’s left side for most of their attacks on Saturday, knowing Alexis Sanchez isn’t renowned for his defensive work in assisting his full-back. Luke coped well under the pressure, and I have no hesitation in selecting him for this challenge tonight.
CBs: Eric Bailly & Victor Lindelof– Eric Bailly is back!! It’s the news all United fans have been waiting for, as our best centre-half finally hopes to get his season “up and running” properly after struggling with niggly injuries for the last few months. Such is his outstanding ability that I have no concerns throwing Eric straight into the thick of the action this evening, and I’d have Lindelof partnering him, a man well used to playing football on the Iberian Peninsula. According to the manager, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo are unlikely to be fit enough to feature in Sevilla, and I much prefer Lindelof to Chris Smalling.
DMs: Nemanja Matic & Scott McTominay– Matic has looked tired for the last few weeks, which is hardly surprising given the amount of work the lad has got through so far this season, but his importance to the side is too great to consider resting him in this competition. I’d partner him with young McTominay tonight- United are renowned for giving youth a chance in big games, and Scott has earned his chance to start at the very top level in club football. I think his height gives him an advantage over the returning Ander Herrera.
AM (C): Paul Pogba– I cannot emphasise enough how important I believe Paul is to our team, and the news of his last-minute illness on Saturday morning was very concerning indeed, as was the relief when I heard he was back training with the rest of the squad by Monday morning. I can only hope that he and Jose Mourinho sort out any issues that exist between them, and I have to say I have great sympathy for our French midfield general because I think he has been largely played out of position this season. Again, I’d have Paul as the most offensive of the midfield trio, dictating the tempo of the game as much as possible.
RF: Alexis Sanchez– Sanchez has shown flashes of genius to date, without really “grabbing” a game as he often did when at Arsenal…tonight would be a good time to fix that! The boy’s ability (as shown with his exquisite return pass to Lukaku for United’s second goal on Saturday at the John Smith’s Stadium) is absolute top-level; Sevilla won’t enjoy facing him.
LF: Anthony Martial– Martial came off the bench at Huddersfield, having been dropped from the starting line-up after a frustrating day at Newcastle United in the Premier League, but his sheer pace and frightening ability on the ball will have the Spanish defence worried. We need to see a good performance from the young Frenchman; this is the sort of stage he should be reveling on…
CF: Romelu Lukaku– the Belgian hitman put the Terriers to the sword on Saturday with two clinical finishes to take his goal tally for the season to 21, and surely those who doubted the wisdom of Mourinho in having the Club “splash the cash” on the former Everton striker in the summer are beginning to have a rethink? Once again, the big man will be the focal point of our attack, and I can guarantee that the likes of Kjaer and Clement Lenglet will not enjoy their battle with Lukaku.
BENCH: Romero, Smalling, Lingard, Herrera, Mata, Young, Rashford.
It has to be said that the English Premier League clubs have performed outstandingly well so far in this year’s Round of 16, with all of Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City securing excellent 1st leg results. Chelsea really should be taking a lead to Camp Nou as well after last night’s game against Barcelona, and may regret both gifting Leo Messi an equaliser and their own missed opportunities.
United face a very hard task if they wish to join that list, but by the same token, if we wish to be taken seriously as potential European Cup winners, Sevilla must be beaten over two legs. Whilst that will be far from easy, I will be very disappointed if this squad, with this manager, don’t do just that. Tonight I’d certainly take a draw, as I believe this away game will be very competitive indeed, and Sevilla certainly have players who can hurt us. However, we can definitely overcome the Spaniards on our own pitch, so we just need to keep things tight and take any chances we create in Spain- an away goal or two would be priceless; it will be tight, tense and fraught with nervous energy. C’mon United, let’s avoid a ‘pain in Spain’!