The first Europa League semi-final kicks off on Sunday as the competition’s most successful side, Sevilla, take on 2017 winners Manchester United at Stadion Koln for a place in the showpiece event on August 21.
Man Utd booked their place in the final four by navigating past a tricky tie against Copenhagen on Monday night, with Bruno Fernandes netting an extra-time penalty to separate the sides and set up a meeting with the five-time winners of this competition.
Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla will be looking to make it back-to-back wins against Premier League opposition after overcoming Wolves 1-0 in a tense quarter-final clash earlier this week, thanks to an 88th-minute Lucas Ocampos winner that ended the possibility of an all-English semi-final showdown.
So, with the stage now set for what promises to be a highly-competitive contest, here are four things we think will happen as both these sides look to set up a meeting with either Inter Milan or Shakhtar Donetsk in the final later this month.
1. Bruno Fernandes will make a goalscoring contribution
In nine Europa League matches this term, Bruno Fernandes has found the back of the net on seven occasions, which makes him the top-scorer in the competition. And is that so surprising for a team who win penalties like United do? Four of Fernandes’ Europa League goals have come from the spot this season and no team has won more spot-kicks than United in the competition this season (4). In the Premier League this season, they won 14.
Fernandes has also set up his teammates four times, including two goals and an assist in his past three games. Incredibly, the 25-year-old is averaging a goal or an assist every 65 minutes in Europe. No wonder some fans are likening his impact to that of Eric Cantona.
With such a stellar record this campaign we expect Fernandes to keep that purple patch going and once again take centre stage to find a way past Los Nervionenses’ formidable backline. Lopetegui’s side have kept three consecutive clean sheets in the Europa League, but club captain Jesus Navas noted in pre-match media appearance that they will have to be especially focused to cope with their opponent’s pace in attack.
“In terms of their individual players, they’ve got some quick players up top who are dangerous,” the former Manchester City player said.
“We’re focusing on ourselves and knowing what we have to do in each game – and, particularly, keeping calm when necessary and then attacking at pace.
With United’s ball-carriers running riot in the final third, that clean sheet streak could very well come to an end. Especially with Fernandes on penalty duty. Unlike Raul Jimenez in the quarter-finals, he doesn’t seem to miss.
Since the start of the 2017/18 season, Bruno Fernandes has taken 21 penalties in league and European competition:
He does not miss. pic.twitter.com/fYf45zjKrx
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 10, 2020
2. One of these sides will keep a clean sheet
But if you’re expecting fireworks, maybe just lower the expectation bar a tad. Sevilla rarely engage in feasts of high-scoring activity. In fact, of Sevilla’s 10 Europa League games this season, seven have finished with under 2.5 goals. And in only two of those games have both teams scored.
Man Utd have fared slightly better in the scoring department. Of their 11 games, five have finished with under 2.5 goals, but it should be noted that both teams have scored in only three of those matches, setting the scene for what looks set to be a low-scoring and tense affair.
As Wolves will attest to on Tuesday night, Sevilla are a tricky side to break down, and with Man Utd experiencing their own difficulties against Copenhagen the day prior, having fired a blank in regulation time, one goal could be all it takes this weekend in Germany.
It is not just in continental football that Sevilla have been defensively resolute under Lopetegui this season. In La Liga the Andalusian club conceded just 34 goals across the entire campaign, the third-lowest total, and fewer than Barcelona (38). Only Real Madrid (25) and Atletico Madrid (27) bettered that record.
But Man Utd have an equally solid record, if not a superior one. As things stand no club has kept more clean sheets in the Europa League this season than Man Utd (eight), while Sevilla have kept the second-most (seven), so expect at least one of these clubs to keep the other at bay on Sunday.
It may also be worth noting that Man Utd and Sevilla have conceded just four goals each in Europe this season, the joint-third best record, despite featuring in 11 and 10 games respectively. For context, Inter Milan have the best defensive record with two goals conceded, but have only played four games, having dropped out of the Champions League.
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3. Most of the action will happen in the second half
With these latter stages now only single-legged ties, managers may treat each half as a sort of mini first and second leg, with the first 45 minutes used to get a sense of what each team has to offer, and the second 45 minutes a more risk-taking affair depending on circumstances.
Man Utd, in particular, prefer to do their business after the half-time break. Fifteen of their 24 Europa League goals have come either in the second half or during extra-time. In fact, in the knockout rounds, Man Utd have scored nine second-half or extra-time goals compared to five in the opening 45 minutes.
Sevilla meanwhile have been doing the business relatively early, netting both their goals in the first half against Roma during the last-16, but if the Wolves game (and the Copenhagen match in Man Utd’s case) is anything to go by, then we may have to wait until the dying embers before things really start to heat up.
4. Man Utd to buck one Europa League trend and qualify
If recent history were anything to go by then all arrows point in the favour of Sevilla. The Spaniards have reached the Europa League semi-final on six previous occasions and subsequently went on to win the tournament in all but one of those (2005/06, 2006/07, 2013/14, 2014/15, 2015/16).
Couple that with the fact Sevilla have only been eliminated in one of their last 20 knockout ties in the Europa League and are currently unbeaten against Man Utd in three matches, including two in the 2017/18 Champions League. Simply put, things aren’t looking particularly favourable for the North-West English club.
Sevilla have reached the #UEL semi-finals for the sixth time.
They've gone on to win the competition on each of the past five occasions. 🙃 pic.twitter.com/nZvOgGRyZF
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 11, 2020
However, the Red Devils have looked razor-sharp in recent times and are arguably the competition’s most in-form side, with no club scoring more goals (24) or keeping more clean sheets (eight) than them this season. That mix at both ends of the pitch should stand when they lock horns with Sevilla.