Journey to the centre of the Europa League – Matchday 4

The late Graham Taylor – Watford, Aston Villa and ultimately England manager – once observed a footballing truism: “People always remember the second half.”

However, he also once said:

In football, time and space are the same thing.

But, as everyone knows, space has three dimensions and time is, in fact, one dimensional. For further details, see Einstein.

Anyway the point being (I think) that its not how you start which matters, but how you finish. A contorted way of illustrating that most teams in the Europa League group phase still have a fighting chance to progress.

Halfway through the current stage of the continent’s most circuitous tournament, only two clubs maintain a 100 per cent record. Aside from those stalwarts – Sevilla and Arsenal – several others know that victory on Matchday 4 (effectively the return ‘leg’ of double-headed ties) should seal safe passage into the last 32.

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One such side, Premier League crisis-magnet Manchester United, can do so by completing what would once have been perceived as a straightforward task: beating Partizan Belgrade at Old Trafford.

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær  bluntly described his forwards as “non-existent” in the narrow 1-0 win in Belgrade last time out. Though Anthony Martial scored the only goal of the game to earn his side a first away win in seven months, Solskjær was still displeased.

The extent to which his youthful side struggled to eke out such a result reflects the current fortunes of a humbled giant. Saturday’s defeat at Bournemouth came as little surprise, as a side supposedly encouraged by a midweek Carabao Cup win over Chelsea reverted to type, again failing to convert their chances.

Thursday nights seem to have a different feel for United, however. The Red Devils are unbeaten in their last ten Europa League home games, winning eight. Indeed, they are currently on a run of 14 matches in the competition without defeat – four short of the all-time record set last season by Chelsea. United now have seven points from three games, with Partizan three points adrift.

After the Belgrade game, Solskjær declared:

We’re going to go all out to get that win and the last two games we’ll know we’re through. It’s a great position to be in…we haven’t conceded a goal. Defensively we have done really well, but we know we need to score more.

In spite of carrying the weight of their domestic burden, United will face a Partizan side – qualified by virtue of claiming a fourth successive Serbian Cup triumph – which have lost ten of their 16 away fixtures in the relatively brief history of the Europa League.

Partizan coach Savo Milošević played for Aston Villa from 1995 to 1998, joining the Villans for a club-record fee and lifting the League Cup in his debut campaign. On three occasions, he faced Solskjær while the ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ was on the Old Trafford playing staff.

His return to England perhaps comes at an opportune moment, but his is a side limited by a shortage of resources. They are already ten points adrift of Crvena Zvezda (or Red Star, if you prefer) in fourth place in the Serbian SuperLiga, despite beating third-placed Vojvodina 4-0 at the weekend.

Zoran Tošić was on the United books briefly, but only played five matches for the club. Former Roma starlet Umar Sadiq offers a significant presence up front and is often supported by lively one-time Arsenal forward Takuma Asano. Nonetheless, even this particularly toothless United iteration should be able to muster enough firepower to seal qualification at the first time of asking.

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Lazio, by contrast, have no problem finding their way to goal. Of late, prolific goal-getter Ciro Immobile has continued to force his name onto the numerous back (and front) pages of the Italian sport dailies. And he is not alone, notes Celtic manager Neil Lennon:

They’ve got other good strikers. (Felipe) Caicedo was very good against us and (Angel) Correa, too. I’d imagine Luis Alberto might come into consideration as well.

Immobile, though, is “the most in-form striker in the world” according to Lazio boss Simone Inzaghi, having already netted 14 goals in as many games this season for club and country, before making it 15 in 15 with his 100th Lazio goal at Milan on Sunday.

The much-travelled striker actually credits a rare taste of failure for his current status.

I believe that (difficult spells at Dortmund and Sevilla) helped me enormously and when I eventually came back to Italy with Lazio three years ago I was a better player for the experience.

Naturally, he is brimming with confidence:

I think I am going to be part of a success story at Lazio. We see the Europa League as very important now. It’s actually a tournament that fascinates me.

Acknowledging his side’s sluggish start in Europe, Immobile added:

We are not in a good position and we absolutely must beat Celtic to get back in with a chance.

Much of the build-up to this ‘second leg’ has centred on the escalating animosity between supporters of the two clubs. Celtic fans have responded to the grim spectacle of visiting Lazio ultras demonstrating straight-arm salutes in Glasgow last month by raising funds for the ‘Football Against Fascism’ cause. While far from paragons of virtue themselves, the Parkhead faithful have taken an admirable stand while making a mockery of those who claim football and politics can ever be separated.

An estimated 8000 travelling fans will be subject to a strict alcohol curfew as both clubs are fearful of the bad blood continuing to spill. Rome’s main tourist attractions will be heavily policed and fans have – surely fruitlessly – been told to be wary of wearing club colours.

Celtic’s rapturously received comeback win at home – completed courtesy of a late Christopher Jullien header – means that they would be content with a consolidatory point; keeping in-form Lazio at arm’s length, four points behind with two games to go. In the other Group E match, a promising Rennes side must beat Cluj to remain in contention.

While our attention is most naturally drawn to ties such as the one in Rome – between traditional heavyweights (or at least cruiserweights) – sometimes the sheer David versus Goliath potential of a contest is hard to resist.

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Sevilla currently boast maximum points in Group A and have won the Europa League a record five times, including three in a row from 2014 to 2016. They are fifth in La Liga – one point adrift of leaders Barcelona – having successfully regenerated their squad once again in the summer.

With those departing including Wissam Ben Yedder (Monaco), Pablo Sarabia (PSG) and Ajax’s Quincy Promes, new recruits such as Luuk de Jong, Joan Jordan, Sergio Reguilon and Lucas Ocampos have started to settle into Andalusian life. A hard-fought draw with Atletico is followed on the fixture list by Betis in the derby this week, which could well influence Thursday’s team selection. Coach Julen Lopetegui is spoiled for choice though, with an able and versatile squad to call upon.

By contrast, Luxembourg’s F91 Dudelange have so far conceded more goals than any of the other 47 remaining teams (10) and Sevilla’s recent visit to the Grand Duchy saw the overwhelmed hosts face 26 shots and manage only 26% possession. Yet, they can still qualify if they achieve a highly improbable result at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.

F91’s campaign began with a 4-3 win against Apoel Nicosia, followed by a 4-1 defeat at home to Azerbaijani outfit Qarabaq which leaves them third in the group. Reigning national champions, they face their sternest test yet amid poor form. Dudelange currently sit ninth in the Luxembourg National Division after a 2-1 loss to Fola Esch on Sunday. Even so, the club has come a long way since it was formed in 1991, through a merger with two other teams based in a town of just 20,000 inhabitants.

So surely one of the greatest divides to cross since…well, since RZ Pellets of Wolfsberg took on Roma last month. If Dudelange can also pull off a famous draw, or better, it would represent a feat to be immediately etched in Europa League folklore.

Some, like the little Luxembourgish club, have a significant and improbable half-time deficit to claw back. Rosenborg, Vitoria, Besiktas, CSKA and Astana have the toughest task, as they each remain pointless. However, in several of the twelve groups the first half has been a finely-balanced affair. And now, once we’ve had the half-time oranges, lukewarm cups of tea and invigorating rub-downs, it’s time for the second half to begin.

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