Previewing Manchester United’s Europa League Opponents

Manchester United have been drawn in Group A of the 2016/17 Europa League. They will face Turkish giants Fenerbahçe, Dutch side Feyenoord and Ukrainian unknowns FC Zorya Luhansk. Manager José Mourinho has not competed in this tournament since 2004, when he won the trophy then known as the UEFA Cup, with Porto. It’s fair to say that United’s Europa League opponents make up a tricky, but very winnable, group.

United’s Tournament History

Manchester United’s first participation was in the 1964-65 season, when it was known as the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. This was also their best showing in the tournament. They reached the semi-final, losing to eventual winners Ferencváros of Hungary. During its early days, the Fairs Cup was an independent competition. In 1971 it became the UEFA Cup, with Europe’s governing body realising the growing importance of continental football. Despite this UEFA does not recognise any winners of the Fairs Cup in their list of honours, unlike FIFA.

United competed in the UEFA Cup six times between 1976 and 1995. Their 1984-85 elimination in the quarter-finals to another Hungarian side, Videoton was the closest they came to success. In 1995-96 they were eliminated by Russian side Rotor Volgograd on away goals. The game was most memorable for the fact that goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel equalised with a last minute header.

It was rebranded as the Europa League in 2009, as UEFA attempted to drum up interest in the competition. United have competed twice, in 2011-12 and 2015-16, after elimination from the Champions League. On both occasions they were eliminated in the last 16.

This will be United’s first participation in the group stage of the tournament. It is also worth noting that the trophy is the only major honour the club has never won. By winning it, they would be added to a list of clubs that have claimed all three UEFA competitions.

Fenerbahçe

Despite Ankara being the capital of Turkey, the country’s football is dominated by the three clubs from Istanbul. Galatasaray (20 titles), Fenerbahçe (19) and Beşiktaş (14) have had the monopoly on the Turkish Superliga throughout its entire history. Only Trabzonspor, on six occasions, and Bursaspor’s shock success in 2010 have ever threatened this.

Manchester United and Fenerbahçe have faced each other on four previous occasions, all in the Champions League. Prior to the 1996-97 season, United had never suffered a European defeat at Old Trafford. After they won 2 – 0 in Istanbul, nobody expected that it would be the Turkish side who ended that 40 year record. The home fans were silenced when Bosnian striker Elvir Bolić struck a 78th minute hammer blow. There seemed to be no danger when he struck a shot from thirty yards. The ball deflected off the unfortunate David May and looped over Schmeichel into the net.

In 2004-05, the two sides met again in a game made famous by Wayne Rooney’s debut hat trick. United won the match 6 – 2 but it was the teenage striker who made the headlines. United were already assured of qualification for the knockout stage when the return fixture was played. Fenerbahçe won 3 – 0 against a side made up largely of youth and fringe players.

Although Fenerbahçe finished second last season, they did not make it past the qualifying round of the Champions League. A 4 – 3 aggregate defeat to Monaco determined that their continental campaign would be spent in the Europa League.

Their current squad includes a player who was recently a huge favourite at Old Trafford. Dutch striker Robin van Persie moved to Istanbul in 2015, having fallen out of favour with Louis van Gaal. He scored 22 goals in all competitions last season, despite reports that he was unhappy at the club. He hit out at then manager Vítor Pereira for constantly substituting him.

The Portuguese manager’s inability to win the Turkish Superliga saw him replaced by Dick Advocaat in the summer. Van Persie has been linked with a move away but the arrival of his fellow Dutchman may see him remain. If so, his almost single-handed role in United’s 20th league title victory should guarantee him a good reception.

Brazilian striker Fernandão was the club’s top scorer last season with 25 goals in total. Nigerian forward Emmanuel Emenike has returned from a loan spell at West Ham United, and has three goals so far this season. Turkish trio Volkan Şen, Alper Potuk and Mehmet Topal will be vital to the club in midfield.

Fenerbahçe will no doubt miss the Valencia bound Nani, who scored 14 goals last season. Following a superb Euro 2016 campaign with Portugal, he moved to the Mestalla for €8.5 million. Czech winger Miroslav Stoch, once of Chelsea, has so far looked like a good replacement. He has spent several loan spells in the six years since he joined the cub. He has three goals in his first five games and poses a clear threat.

This summer has seen the club significantly strengthen their defence. Roman Neustädter has joined from Schalke, and Martin Škrtel arrived following the expiration of his Liverpool contract. Both players should provide Danish centre-back Simon Kjær with competition at the back. Dutch right-back Gregory van der Wiel has also arrived, on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain.

The club’s best performance in the competition was in 2012-13, when they reached the semi-final. They will certainly fancy their chances of qualifying from the group. The 50,000 capacity Şükrü Saracoğlu will provide an intimidating atmosphere when United travel there in November.

Feyenoord

The Rotterdam side are often referred to as Holland’s third biggest club. It’s easy to forget that they were the first Dutch side to lift the European Cup, in 1970. This is probably due to the fact that Ajax dominated Europe for the following three years.

Although they have a long, trophy-laden history, recent times have not been so kind to Feyenoord. Their last Eredivisie title was in 1998-99, and since then have only won three trophies. They are the current holders of the KNVB Cup after beating Utrecht in the final in May, which they also won in 2007-08. The club won the UEFA Cup in 2002, following a 3 – 2 win over Borussia Dortmund in their own ground, the De Kuip Stadium. This was the second time they had won the trophy, the first being in 1974 against Tottenham Hotspur.

The only time Manchester United and Feyenoord have previously faced each other was in the 1997-98 Champions League. United won both fixtures, 2 – 1 at Old Trafford and 3 – 1 in Rotterdam. The game in Holland was memorable for two reasons. A superb hat trick by Andy Cole gave United the victory. What most people remember was the shocking, and unpunished, foul by Paul Bosvelt on Denis Irwin. The Dutch midfielder went in with his studs up, and Irwin was injured for two months as a result

Their best known player, and main scoring threat, is club captain Dirk Kuyt. The man who was used in a variety of positions during his time at Liverpool, returned to the club last summer. His manager, and former international team mate Giovanni van Bronckhorst, seems to have given Kuyt a free role. The result was that he scored 23 goals in all competitions last season.

Danish striker Nicolai Jørgensen moved to Feyenoord over the summer, and has scored twice for his new club. Young Turkish winger Bilal Başaçıkoğlu broke into the team last season to secure a regular place.

Moroccan midfielder Karim El Ahmadi will be familiar to Aston Villa fans, having spent two years there between 2012 & 2014. He is now the vice-captain of Feyenoord and one of their most vital players.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst had two spells as a player at Feyenoord, and played against United in 1997. Following very successful spells at Rangers, Arsenal and Barcelona he returned to his first club. He took over as manager in 2015 and guided them to third place last season.

Feyenoord’s hopes of success could depend on how seriously United and Fenerbahçe take the competition. The De Kuip holds enjoyable memories for United fans, having beat Barcelona there in 1991 European Cup Winners Cup Final. It has to be said, however, that it is an intimidating ground for opposition fans. Maximum points at home could be key to the Rotterdam club’s chances.

FC Zorya Luhansk

Unless you are a fan of the Ukrainian Premier League, the chances are you won’t have heard of this side. FC Zorya were founded in 1923, and the best period of their history was in the 1970’s.  The club won their only Soviet Top League title in 1972 At that time they were known as Zorya Voroshilovgrad. They also finished runner-up in the Soviet Cup in both 1974 and 1975.

Zorya were one of the original twenty teams when the Ukrainian Premier Leaugue formed in 1991. They were relegated in 1996. Zorya spent the next ten years flitting between the second and third tiers of Ukrainian football. They were promoted back to the top flight in 2006. Last season they recorded a best ever fourth place finish. They were also runner-up in the Ukrainian Cup, losing to Shakhtar Donetsk.

Manchester United have never met Zorya in any European competition before. If the fans are unsure what to expect, they might be concerned at the story behind their home ground. In 2014 their Avanhard Stadium was damaged beyond repair by a mortar attack, and subsequently closed. Since then Zorya have been playing in the Slavutych-Arena in Zaporizhia, 235 miles away.

Their head coach is Russian Yuriy Vernydub, who played for Zenit St Petersburg among other clubs. He has been at the helm since 2011, and has overseen Zorya’s transformation into a difficult side to beat.

Little is known about the players in the all black strip, as most of them do not represent any international team. Their top scorer last season was midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev, with eight goals. He has been with the club on loan from Shakhtar Donetsk since 2014. He is not the only one as Vladyslav Kulach, Dmytro Hrechyshkin and Denys Bezborodk are also loanees.

Brazilian forward Paulinho has been brought in from Corinthians, but has yet to play for the club. The club captain is defender Mykyta Kamenyuka, who at the age of 31 has one Ukraine cap to his name.

FC Zorya are the real unknown quantity in this group. They could be the surprise package, or the group whipping boys.

Final Thought

The draw that decided Manchester United’s Europa League opponents could have been a lot worse. There are several European giants in this year’s competition, and the Red Devils cant have too many complaints.

Even the fixtures have been kind to United in this group. In October they play Liverpool and Chelsea either side of a midweek home fixture against Fenerbahçe. A long away trip to Russia or Turkey could have made that period a lot more difficult.

United are overwhelming favourites to progress from the group. It is worth noting, however, that they were hugely fancied to qualify from their Champions League group last season. What transpired was that they found themselves relegated to the same competition they are in this year. Nothing can be taken for granted.


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