Sevilla’s struggles give Manchester United a chance to exorcise some demons

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Manchester United some history with Sevilla, but the Spaniards are struggling now.

There will be some ghosts in the dressing room at Old Trafford tonight. Most of the Manchester United side that lost 2-1 to Sevilla in 2020 are still on the playing staff, only Paul Pogba moving on from the starting eleven that were beaten in the eerie, empty stands of the RheinEnergieStadion. Most of the players who take to the field will remember Suso popping up at the back post to level, and will wake up in a cold sweat as they recall the entire defence losing ex-Newcastle United loan flop Luuk de Jong and allowing him to slot home the winner in that semi-final.

The Sevilla side tonight will be further removed from their past glories. The Andalucian side won the competition for three consecutive seasons between 2014 and 2016 to go alongside their eventual 2020 triumph, but just five members of the squad that arrived in Cologne remain with the club, and Sevilla’s star has fallen significantly over the last 18 months, going from serious title contenders to relegation candidates in swift succession.

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Sevilla players, including Ivan Rakitic, following their stunning late defeat to Osasuna in the Copa del ReySevilla players, including Ivan Rakitic, following their stunning late defeat to Osasuna in the Copa del Rey
Sevilla players, including Ivan Rakitic, following their stunning late defeat to Osasuna in the Copa del Rey

This is not the Sevilla side that beat Liverpool 3-1 in 2016, and it certainly isn’t the team of Fredi Kanoute, Enzo Maresca and Luis Fabiano that eviscerated Middlesbrough back in 2006. It isn’t even the same side that overcame Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men in Germany a little less than three years ago. This is a side struggling for survival and bearing the brunt of two years of poor decisions in the boardroom and dugout alike, and tonight’s quarter-final marks a fine opportunity for Manchester United to exorcise a few demons.

Sevilla shipped two goals in the dying minutes at the Ramon Sanchzez Pizjuan on Friday, letting another lead slip against Celta Vigo. That result left them thirteenth in the table, five points clear of a relegation battle they have been embroiled in all season. Last year they looked like serious title contenders for the first time in years when January rolled around, but collapsed badly and won just five of their last 18 matches. The rot continued into this season, with now-Wolves coach Julen Lopetegui, who had guided them to that Europa League triumph in 2020, relieved of duties after picking up just four points from their first seven matches.

Replacement Jorge Sampaoli fared little better and the Argentinian was dismissed himself after just five months in charge. Replacement Jose Luis Mendilibar has avoided defeat in his first two games in charge, but faces a tough task getting a fresh tune out of a side that has suffered from a talent drain and a lack of strong recruits. Mendilibar is at least a seasoned specialist in the art of the relegation battle, although more cynical Sevilla fans might note that he lost his last two – going down with Eibar two years ago before being fired by Alaves the following season as they drifted to a 20th-place finish in La Liga.

Part of the problem stems from an overspend in pursuit of that first Spanish title since 1946 – sporting director Monchi also supposedly budgeted for at least the quarter-finals of the Champions League this year and failed to see his side make it past the group stage, and consequently the substantial wage packets offered to players like Thomas Delaney, Erik Lamela and Manchester United loanee Anthony Martial in recent years have weighed rather heavily on the club coffers.

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With other incoming players failing to impress and a shortfall in the budget, the necessary clearout came without much in the way of incomings for Lopetegui or Sampaoli. Their superb centre-back pairing of Diego Costa and Jules Kounde was broken up for €76m, and less than €30m was spent on fresh blood, with new centre-halves Marcao and Tanguy Nianzou – brought in from Bayern Munich at the age of just 20 - struggling to assert themselves at their new home.

Players intended to fill out key roles on a budget have failed to make a dent. Isco was signed on a free and rapidly released, while Kasper Dolberg arrived on loan and made four appearances before being sent back to Nice. Alex Telles, another man brought over on a temporary basis from Old Trafford, has been on the bench as often as the starting line-up.

New Sevilla manager Jose Luis Mendilibar will be taking charge of his third game with the clubNew Sevilla manager Jose Luis Mendilibar will be taking charge of his third game with the club
New Sevilla manager Jose Luis Mendilibar will be taking charge of his third game with the club

Worse, though, has been a collective lack of confidence that stems from the unravelling of their title charge last year. When things were going well under Lopetegui, Sevilla played some of the best high pressing, flowing football in Europe. When things began to go awry – a combination of their strikers losing their shooting boots and some inexplicable individual errors costing them time and again – heads seemed to go down hard and they have never recovered the swagger that they had at the tail end of 2021, or when they beat Manchester United on that dark and quiet night in Cologne.

Still, this may not be the same Sevilla side that Manchester United fans will expect, but this is the Europa League, the tournament they have made their own and which they have won a record six times – twice as many as any other club in the history of the competition. They have beaten PSV Eindhoven and Fenerbahce to make it this far, although it may be notable that they have done so despite losing both of the away legs without registering a goal. Perhaps some of the spirit of Kanoute, or Suso, or Coke and their heroics in Europa Leagues gone by can be summoned up, but recent defeats will likely leave just as much trepidation in the team.

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It would, then, be a substantial shock if Sevilla were to win at Old Trafford tonight. This is a glorious chance for Erik Ten Hag to give the home fans a measure of revenge for the defeat in 2020 – and the defeat under Jose Mourinho in the Champions League in 2018 – and dispel some more of the aura that surrounds Sevilla in Europe’s second competition. This is their tournament, perhaps, but on paper and on form, this should be Manchester United’s night.

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