It is, for the most part, a draw indistinguishable from the early stages of the Champions League. Manchester United’s Europa League group draw offers no glamour ties, but then with the seeding system, there rarely are in the main competition either. José Mourinho’s team is set for trips to Netherlands, Turkey and Ukraine, in a group that United should walk. But then, with Premier League revival the clear priority this season, it is also a competition in which nobody at Old Trafford is truly interested.
Mourinho played up the draw, he could hardly do otherwise without veering into the realm of David Moyes’ defeatism. After all, United’s failure to reach the continent’s premier competition is hardly the Portuguese manager’s fault. Instead, Mourinho highlighted the apparent quality that Feyenoord, Fenerbahce and Zorya Luhansk will bring to the group – and suggested that United will add stardust to a competition that is a very poor cousin to the Champions League.
“There are groups in the Champions League that are very similar, so it is a good for that,” Mourinho said. “We know that it will be a difficult group, but I think that is a good thing. If you have teams without expression then even the fans may not enjoy nights at Old Trafford. It is good for the fans and for the players because it will help motivation.
“Having a team like Man United in the competition, playing matches against teams like Feyenoord and Fenerbahce, is also good for a competition that doesn’t have the same glamour as the Champions League.”
It’s all spin, of course, with Mourinho likely to farm out much of the workload to the fringes of his squad as the fixture list becomes more congested in the autumn. He’ll be right as well, with the Europa League far from United’s priority this season.
After all, the rewards on offer in the Europa League, both financially and in terms of glory, are much reduced when compared to its sister competition. While the Europa features some high quality teams, including Roma, Schalke, Zenit St. Petersburg and Athletic Bilbao, the eventual winners will net no more than €25 million in prize money and broadcast fees. Last season’s Champions League winners, Real Madrid, took home €94 million before ticket sales, according to website Total Sportek.
Beyond the finances, few players would rather play in the Europa than the Champions League, and supporters will certainly forgive Mourinho if he reaches into the full depth of his squad.
Not least because the players will sometimes enjoy just one day’s full training between games. The trip to Feyenoord, for example, will leave little space before an away fixture at Watford in the Premier League.
That said, there is an interesting narrative to some of the ties ahead, including a reunion with Robin van Persie on the cards, and a trip to eastern Ukraine for the more adventurous among United’s legion away support.
Mourinho’s team opens the campaign at Feyenoord on 15 September, five days after the first Manchester derby of the season. The Rotterdam-based club finished third in the Eredivisie last season, 21 points behind champions PSV Eindhoven, although the side has begun the season with four victories in a succession, scoring 12 goals in the process.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The rewards on offer in the Europa, both financially and in terms of glory, are much reduced when compared to the Champions League. Supporters will certainly forgive Mourinho if he reaches into the full depth of his squad.[/blockquote]
Feyenoord is managed by former Arsenal and Rangers midfielder Giovanni van Bronckhorst, and can boast a squad that includes ‘talents’ such as Dirk Kuyt and Brad Jones. Dane Nicolai Jørgensen and on-loan Watford winger Steven Berghuis are the sole acquisitions this summer.
United last faced the Dutch side in the 1997/98 Champions League, with the Reds winning 2-1 at Old Trafford and 3-1 at De Kuip. There is little to suggest United will not win both ties this time around, bar appathy.
In late September Old Trafford welcomes Zorya Luhansk, a team that finished fourth in the Ukrainian championship last season. Luhansk is located deep into war torn Donbass, with the city currently under the control of the pro-Russian ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ rebels. It means that the return fixture will almost certainly be played at the 12,000 capacity Slavutych-Arena, 300 miles to the west in Zaporizhia.
Managed by Yuriy Vernydub, the former FC Prykarpattya Ivano-Frankivsk midfielder, Zorya lies third in the Ukranian Premier League after losing just once this season. The club failed to make last season’s Europa League group stages after defeat over two legs to Legia Warszawa, but avoided a play-off this year following Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk’s European ban under UEFA’s financial fair play rules.
Finally, Mourinho’s side faces Van Persie’s Fenerbahçe, a team that the Reds have met four times in the Champions league, losing twice. The fixtures have brought two notable encounters: in October 1996 the Reds lost at home for the first time in European competition, with Fenerbahçe snatching a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. Then, in 2004, Wayne Rooney scored a hat-trick on his United début as the Reds won 6-2 at Old Trafford.
Fenerbahçe finished second in the Turkish SuperLig last season, qualifying for the group stage after hammering Swiss side Grasshoppers in the qualifying round. Aside from Van Persie, Manager Dick Advocaat’s squad boasts Turkish midfielder Mehmet Topal, together with imports Gregory van der Wiel, Emmanuel Emenike and former Liverpool defender Martin Škrtel.
Europa League draw
Group A: Manchester United, Fenerbahçe, Feyenoord, Zorya Luhansk.
Group B: Olympiacos, APOEL, Young Boys, FC Astana.
Group C: Anderlecht, Saint-Etienne, FSV Mainz, Gabala SC.
Group D: Zenit St. Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Dundalk FC.
Group E: Viktoria Plzen, AS Roma, Austria Wien, FC Astra Giurgiu
Group F: Athletic Club, KRC Genk, SK Rapid Wien, US Sassuolo Calcio
Group G: AFC Ajax, Standard de Liege, Celta de Vigo, Panathinaikos FC
Group H: Shakhtar Donetsk, SC Braga, KAA Gent, Konyaspor.
Group I: FC Schalke, FC Salzburg, FC Krasnodar, OGC Nice.
Group J: Fiorentina, PAOK FC, Slovan Liberec, Qarabag FK.
Group K: Internazionale, AC Sparta Praha, Southampton, Hapoel Beer-Sheva FC
Group L: Villarreal, FC Steaua Bucharest, FC Zurich, Osmanlispor A.S.
15 September – Feyenoord v Manchester United (6pm)
29 September – Manchester United v FC Zorya Luhansk (8pm)
20 October – Manchester United v Fenerbahce SK (8pm)
3 November – Fenerbahce SK v Manchester United (6pm)
24 November – Manchester United v Feyenoord (8pm)
8 December – FC Zorya Luhansk v Manchester United (6pm)
De Kuip, Feyenoord – Stadion Feijenoord was built in 1937, although it has been substantially refurbished three times, latterly for the Euro 200o tournament. The capacity is just over 51,000, although the club has mooted the idea of building a brand new stadium with a somewhat fanciful hope that an arena of up to 130,000 could be built. More realistic plans have since focused on renovating De Kuip once again, increasing capacity to 70,000 by 2018 at a cost of €200 million.
Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium, Istanbul – Also known as Ülker Stadium, after the Turkish biscuit manufacturer, holds a touch over 50,000. Şükrü Saracoğlu is much changed from the ground at which United lost 3-0 in 2004 and it hosted the 2009 UEFA Cup Final.
Slavutych Arena, Zaporizhia – Formerly, Central Stadium Metalurh, the ground opened in 1938 and was renovated between 2004 and 2006, increasing the capacity to a lofty 12,000. Slavutych is located on Lobanovskoho Street, named after legendary manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi.