Soccer Europa League - Play-Offs 24 February 2023
Nantes vs Juventus - Match Preview
Nantes snatched a draw from behind at the Allianz Stadium in the first leg of this UEFA Europa League (UEL) knockout play-off tie, more than holding their own against a Juventus side unbeaten at home in the competition. Now they can complete their quest for vengeance, 27 years after being denied a maiden UEFA Champions League (UCL) final appearance by the Bianconeri, although a 3-2 semi-final home win back in 1996.
That also came a year after Nantes enjoyed their best run in this competition’s predecessor when reaching the UEFA Cup quarter-finals. They clearly have the means to frustrate the Turin giants again, having recorded three shutouts in four home games so far this year. There was no clean sheet at the weekend though, as Nantes went down 3-1 at the hands of Lens, and with their top-flight status still not 100% secure, this should be a welcome distraction from their domestic struggles.
Juventus know that winning this competition is now their likeliest route to a UCL return after a recent Serie A points deduction left them well adrift of the top-four, despite a 2-0 weekend win at Spezia. The visitors also face past demons here, having missed out on the final of 2014 after going down 2-1 to Benfica in their most recent UEL away game, but they still favourite to progress here has never failed to score in a UEL clash on hostile turf (W6, D3, L2).
Juventus’ UEL run of 2014 also saw them beat French opposition (Lyon) 1-0 away in the round prior to their elimination. That contributes to a positive all-time record for Juventus against teams representing France (W19, D8, L8), with that including a win rate of 43% in away games this century (W3, D1, L3), with all three of those victories coming with an accompanying clean sheet.
📋 Players to watch: Nantes midfielder Ludovic Blas cancelled out Dušan Vlahović’s opener in the first leg, for his sixth straight goal to arrive in or after the 60th minute. For Juventus, Moise Kean is a viable option alongside Vlahović, and he’s scored the match opener with four of his last five strikes, most recently netting the winner at Spezia on Sunday.
⚡ Hot streak: All of Nantes’ prior home games this year have produced goalless first halves.
Manchester Utd vs Barcelona - Match Preview
After a 3-0 win over Leicester in the Premier League on Sunday, Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag apparently told the fans to “make sure you are there” on Thursday for the big game against Barcelona after a scintillating 2-2 draw at Camp Nou last week. Little wonder because this could be a season-defining week for the Red Devils with this second leg UEFA Europa League (UEL) playoffs followed by the Carabao Cup final against Newcastle.
They couldn’t have asked for a better place to be than a home for this match, having lost just two of their last 11 UEFA home games (W6, D3) although both were 1-0 defeats against Spanish clubs. The most recent was against Real Sociedad in this UEL campaign, after which they’ve subsequently gone unbeaten in 17 competitive home matches (W15, D2) signalling Old Trafford’s return to the famous fortress that it once was.
Barça did win on their most recent H2H visit in 2019 but will have to repeat those heroics here without the suspended Gavi and injured Pedri. Manager Xavi Hernández was “proud” of his side in the first leg which they followed up with a 2-0 win over Cádiz on Sunday to maintain an eight-point lead at the top in La Liga. That made it an incredible 18-match unbeaten run (W16, D2) and means Barcelona are unlikely to be fazed by United’s recent home dominance.
Xavi may still be worried about his team’s travels in Europe amid an underwhelming record across their last nine UEFA road trips (W3, D2, L4). The Catalans do not particularly have fond memories of England either with their recent visit ending in a 4-0 thumping at Liverpool, their heaviest against any Premier League club.
📋 Key battle: David de Gea equalled Peter Schmeichel’s record of 180 clean sheets for United over the weekend but would happily trade that for his first-ever H2H shutout. Trying to prevent that will be Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski whose 38 goals in 32 major UEFA matches since the start of 2018/19 is more than any other player.
⚡ Hot stat: Including the reverse fixture, Barcelona has failed to score before half-time in seven of their last 11 UEFA matches.
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