Soccer Europa League - Play-Offs 17 February 2023
Betis vs Manchester Utd - Match Preview
Real Betis have a mountain to climb if they’re to progress to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa League (UEL) after a thumping 4-1 defeat in the first leg gave a huge advantage to visitors Manchester United. Manager Manuel Pellegrini refuses to give in though, with the Chilean saying “I don’t think a knockout game is ever over” ahead of a first competitive meeting of the sides on Spanish soil.
Perhaps Pellegrini has good reason to believe that given he’s lost just one of seven home meetings against United throughout his career (W4, D2), with that record including a 4-1 win over the Red Devils whilst in charge of Manchester City in 2013. Continuing that trend will require Los Verdiblancos to rediscover their home form, with Betis having won just one of their last seven games at Estadio Benito Villamarín, including three losses from their last five matches.
Manchester United have already avoided defeat on two UEL trips to Spain this term (W1, D1), and a third successful visit will secure their safe passage into the quarter-finals as their three-pronged trophy hunt continues. Erik ten Hag’s men won all three of their European road trips in the group stage, although a return of just two wins from six away games in 2023 (D2, L2) suggests United can be vulnerable away from Old Trafford, as fans who made the trip to Anfield recently will attest to!
Momentum is stalling for United at the moment, with a 0-0 draw against Southampton their latest setback in a bid to consolidate their place in next year’s Champions League. Ten Hag was furious that the “game was influenced by the referee” as several penalty appeals went begging and Casemiro was sent off for the second time in three league games, although the Brazilian midfielder remains available for this trip as his ban only applies to domestic football.
📋 Key battle: After being dropped for the first leg, Betis forward Borja Iglesias is primed to return here and could be a danger if the tie goes the distance, as five of his 11 goals this season have come from the penalty spot. Tasked with marking him could be Raphaël Varane, who has lost just three of his 12 personal H2Hs with Betis (W6, D3).
⚡ Hot stat: Man Utd have been eliminated from Europe after winning the first leg 4-1 before, as they were dumped out of the European Cup Winners Cup by Sporting Lisbon in 1964 thanks to a 5-0 defeat in the second leg.
Freiburg vs Juventus - Match Preview
Freiburg’s 2-1 win over Hoffenheim on Sunday was a club-record 11th Bundesliga home game without defeat (W8, D3) but there’s hardly been time to celebrate as they prepare to take on Juventus in the second leg of their last 16 UEFA Europa League (UEL) tie. They’re up against it as they trail 1-0 after the first leg having failed to register a shot on target during their first-ever European game against Italian opposition.
Even the most staunch Freiburg supporter might accept they’re fortunate to only be 1-0 down on aggregate given Juventus’ dominance in Turin, which is encouraging because they haven’t lost a home game since August (W11, D4). While they’re unbeaten in three UEL home fixtures this term (W2, D1), winning this one would be their greatest-ever European achievement at the Europa Park Stadium.
With Juventus still hopeful they can overturn their 15-point Serie A penalty for financial irregularities, their 4-2 league win over Sampdoria on Sunday means they can still dream of a top-four league finish. Impressively, that win came without the injured Ángel di María, who has been key to their progress in this competition with four goals across their last two UEL games.
But Juventus still have a concerning injury list even if di María does return for the Old Lady’s latest trip to Germany, where they’ve only lost one of their last four European games as the away side (W2, D1). With those injuries hindering their build-up, they can take nothing for granted after losing three of their four European away games this term, conceding at least twice in each of those defeats.
📋 Players to watch: After his winner against Hoffenheim, Freiburg’s Ritsu Doan has now won all five of his goalscoring appearances for the club, while Juventus’ Adrien Rabiot, whose double helped them beat Sampdoria, has won his last 11 club goalscoring appearances.
⚡ Hot stat: There’s been on average one goal per game after the 80th minute across Freiburg’s last four UEL fixtures (W1, D2, L1).
Arsenal vs Sporting CP - Match Preview
With Arsenal still going strong at the Premier League summit after a 3-0 thumping of Fulham at the weekend, attention will quickly switch back to the UEFA Europa League (UEL). The Gunners’ round of 16 tie with Sporting Lisbon remains on a knife edge after a 2-2 draw in Lisbon last week, but with seven wins from nine home games against Portuguese clubs in European competition (D1, L1), Arsenal will hope they can tip the balance in their favour at the Emirates.
Further boosting Arsenal's belief that they can win a fourth successive UEL Round of 16 ties, Mikel Arteta’s side has won five of their last seven UEFA ties in which they drew the away leg first. Despite that solid record after a first-leg stalemate, Arteta will undoubtedly be disappointed his side doesn’t hold an advantage, and after six changes to his starting XI left his side looking disjointed in Lisbon, expect a full-strength Arsenal from the beginning here.
The Gunners may well need to be at full strength to beat a Sporting side who have progressed from each of their previous six ties against English sides in the knockout stages of UEFA’s second-tier club competition. Like Arsenal, Sporting are coming into this game buoyed by a 3-0 domestic win at the weekend, and with their unbeaten run now standing at seven games (W5, D2), the 19-time Portuguese champions may fancy they can pull off an upset.
Sporting’s record against English sides is perhaps where they run into an issue on that front, as the Lions are winless in their last nine away games against English opposition in major European competition (D4, L5). Their travelling record is equally uninspiring in the UEL knockout phase (W2, D5, L8), though they can perhaps take heart from the fact one of those triumphs came in their last such game - a 4-0 win against Midtjylland.
📋 Players to watch: Just as he did at the weekend, Arsenal will be hoping Martin Ødegaard can find the target given the Gunners have won on all eight of his scoring appearances this season. For the visitors, Pedro Gonçalves was at the double against Midtjylland in the last round and his last five scoring appearances have seen him net in the second half.
⚡ Hot streak: Arsenal is yet to concede a home UEL goal this term (W3).
Real Sociedad vs AS Roma - Match Preview
Real Sociedad is under pressure after losing 2-0 away to Roma in last week’s first leg of this UEFA Europa League (UEL) Round of 16 ties. Following a failure to defeat Mallorca (1-1) in league football at the weekend, they now have to overcome their longest winless period of the season (D3, L2 in all competitions) if they are to get further than they ever have previously in the UEL knockouts.
That’s going to require them to win at home by a three-goal margin, which they have done twice in UEFA football under Imanol Alguacil, although both occasions were in the group stage and against opponents from outside Europe’s top five leagues (PSV Eindhoven and Sheriff Tiraspol). Alguacil declared his side “can do great things”, but their winless home record beyond the group stage of any UEFA competition this century (D1, L3) suggests they will have to break new ground.
This fixture will come at a perfect time for Jose Mourinho, who began a two-game Serie A suspension with a dramatic 4-3 loss at home to Sassuolo. Mourinho described this second leg as “dangerous”, not owing just to the opposition but also because of the timing: this UEL fixture precedes a weekend Derby della Capitale that could be decisive in determining whether Roma can return to the Champions League (UCL) next season.
A repeat of their most recent trip to Spain - a 1-1 away to Real Betis in the group stage of this tournament - will be enough to see them through to the quarter-finals. Yet the Round of 16 was where Roma fell in each of their last three UEL appearances prior to a semi-final run in 2020/21, so with that in mind, they’ll be hoping to repeat their more recent history, with the exception of the four goals they conceded against Sassuolo - the first time since the World Cup that Roma’s defence let through 3+ goals in any competition!
📋 Players to watch: Sociedad's good luck charm Alexander Sörloth has won all 11 of the competitive matches in which he has scored this season, including two in the UEL. Looking to thwart him yet again will be former Sociedad player Diego Llorente, who has now won each of his last four appearances for Roma or Leeds United.
⚡ Hot stat: All but one of Sociedad’s last 11 games in all competitions produced fewer than 2.5 total goals.
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