Manchester United cannot afford any mistakes in tonight’s Europa League match against Sheriff Tiraspol as finishing top of their group now looks more important than ever.
Assuming Real Sociedad win their encounter with FC Astana tonight, the final group standings will be decided in a showdown between the Red Devils and the Spanish side next Thursday.
Under the new Europa League format, whoever finishes first in the group will go straight through to the last 16, while the runners up will face a playoff against one of eight teams dropping down from the Champions League after finishing third in their group.
Having to play an extra round and extra pair of games in an already chaotic season would be bad enough for United, but the way the Champions League is shaping up, it is now looking very likely that it will be a massive side that they would have to face.
With one match remaining in the tournament’s group stages, United could be faced with the possibility of playing one of these eight teams: Ajax, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Barcelona, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sevilla, Juventus or Eintracht Frankfurt.
Barcelona are certain to be in the pot, as they cannot now qualify for the knockout stages of the UCL no matter what happens next week, nor can they come bottom of their group.
The other massive name, Juventus, definitely can’t qualify for the UCL knockout, but may even find themselves bottom of their group if they fail to beat Paris Saint Germain and if Maccabi Haifa win their final game at home to Benfica. If Juve lose to PSG, a draw would be enough for the Israelis.
Atletico Madrid also can’t now qualify for the UCL knockout. They are a point ahead of Leverkusen in Group B, but face a tricky away tie against Porto whilst the Germans are at home to Club Brugge.
Sevilla are all but mathematically certain to find themselves in the Europa pot.
To avoid all these big guns, at least for one round, United will have to overturn a big handicap against Sociedad.
Even if the Red Devils win both games, it will come down to goal difference and United currently trail in that department by four.
A convincing win tonight is therefore vital to give themselves any chance of topping the group in a week’s time.
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