The RheinEnergieStadion in Cologne, Germany provides the setting for the first of the semi-finals of the Europa League with two former winners going head-to-head in a one off game to decide who makes it to the final.
Although due to the havoc caused by the coronavirus there will hardly be anyone in the stadium, which normally sits about 46,000 spectators, to see the Premier League’s Manchester United square up against La Liga’s Sevilla at 8pm (Nigerian time), football fans around the globe will still be hoping to watch a game to remember between the two sides who have only meet in Europe on two previous occasions.
Their other two games were the last 16 of the 2017/18 UEFA Champions League, with Sevilla winning 2-1 at Old Trafford in the second leg, after a goalless draw in Spain.
So while revenge will not be far off from the minds of the players of the team in red, manager Ole Gunner Solskjaer equally knows that history will not judge him kindly should his side fall this evening – because United have progressed to the final from each off their last four semi-final appearances in major European competitions (2007/08, 2008/09 and 2010/11 Champions League and 2016/17 Europa League), winning the trophy on two of these four occasions.
However, the Spanish side is no slouch when it comes to the competition having reached the semis on three previous occasions and gone on to win the tournament on all three occasions (2013/14, 2014/15, 2015/15); in fact, the Spaniards have only been eliminated in one of their last 20 knockout ties in the competition, losing 6-5 on aggregate to Slavia Prague in the last 16 in 2018/19.
And in 53-year-old Julen Lopetegui, they have an outstanding manager, who remained un- beaten in qualifying Spain for Russia 2018 only to be sacked on the eve of the tourna- ment when n e w s b r o k e that h e would be joining Real Madrid after the tournament.
And although he lasted only 14 games with Madrid before being sacked, since moving to Sevilla in June 2019, he has only tasted defeat eight times in 52 outings with Los Palanganas. The former goalkeeper was able to guide Sevilla to third in La Liga with a club record-equalling 21 victories and a club record number of away victories.
Although the coach of the record five-time winners was full of praise for United after seeing off another Premier League side, Wolves on Tuesday night, Lopetegui also issued a subtle warning saying: “We’re focused on the next game, against a top, historic side, one of the best in the history of the sport who are in great form. We will give our best as we always do. “To play against them will be really tough, but we’ll go into it believing we can beat them.”
The Sevilla boss can be quietly confident because his side heads into the semi-finals buoyed by an unbeaten run that stretches back to February.
Had this game been played last month then many United fans would have been more confident because back then the Red Devils were flying, however, they have looked jaded in recent games and even needed a penalty to squeeze past Danish side FC Copenhagen in the quarter-finals.
Ole knows he has to get the best out of his squad if he is to become the third fastest manager to reach 50 wins in all competitions in United’s history after Ernest Mangnall (78) and Jose Mourinho (81).
The Norwegian has played 89 matches since taking charge with 49 wins. Tomorrow sees the second semi-final between Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk at Esprit Arena in Düsseldorf. The final takes place on Friday at the RheinEnergieStadion in Cologne at 8pm.