Top spot in Europa League Group E is on the line at the Anoeta Stadium on Thursday night, as Real Sociedad and Manchester United face off to learn their knockout destiny.
Imanol Alguacil’s side hold a three-point lead over the Red Devils and simply need to avoid defeat on their own patch to consign the visitors to a knockout round play-off tie.
Perfection has been the theme for Real Sociedad in the Europa League this term, but the same cannot be said for their recent La Liga endeavours, as Alguacil’s men seek to recover from back-to-back domestic defeats to ensure a last-16 place in Europe’s secondary tournament.
Sociedad head into the final matchday as the only team in the 2022-23 Europe League to have won all five of their group matches so far, the most recent of which came in a 2-0 win over Omonia last week courtesy of strikes from Robert Navarro and Brais Mendez.
A tally of 10 goals does not place the La Liga outfit among the most prolific of teams in the Europa League, but they have conceded just one goal in the entire tournament so far – unsurprisingly the best defensive record in the competition and one that will be tested to the limit tonight.
In order to progress to the knockout stages as group winners, Sociedad simply need to avoid defeat by more than one goal against Man United, but their momentum in La Liga has taken a hit with successive losses to Real Valladolid and Real Betis without a goal in recent weeks.
Los Txuri-Urdin had previously won five on the bounce at home before being quelled by Betis, but Sociedad are now out to make it three home wins in a row in Europe for the first time since 1998-99, and the hosts have fond memories of their earlier trip to Old Trafford.
Since succumbing to Mendez’s controversial 59th-minute penalty on the opening match-day of the Europa League, Man United have recovered in exemplary fashion to ensure that they will at least be in the hat for the knockout round playoffs after four successive wins.
Of course, only one man stole the headlines before his return to the squad for last week’s visit of Sheriff Tiraspol, where Cristiano Ronaldo returned from punishment with a bang – scoring the third of his side’s three goals on the night after DiogoDalot and Marcus Rashford had also netted in a 3-0 triumph.
Inflicting revenge upon Sociedad with a one-goal win will not be enough to seal top spot for Man United, who must win by at least two goals on Thursday if they are to automatically qualify for the last-16 and avoid one of the teams dropping down from the Champions League.
Rashford‘s 100th goal for the club was all it took for Ten Hag’s team to beat West Ham United 1-0 at the weekend, extending their unbeaten run in all competitions to eight matches in all competitions, and the resilient Red Devils defence has only conceded one goal in their last six matches.
Man United also travel to Spain having scored in each of their last 12 Europa League matches away from home since October 2019, and they thumped Real Sociedad 4-0 at the Anoeta Stadium during the 2020-21 Europa League last-32, and replicating such a showing on Thursday would be their ticket to a first-placed finish. – SportsMole
Europa League fixtures:
Arsenal vs Zurich
Bodo/Glimt v PSV Eindhoven email@example.com
Dynamo Kyiv v Fenerbahce
Rennes v AEK Larnaca
Real Betisvs HJK Helsinki
St Gilloisevs Union Berlin
Braga vs Malmo
Real Sociedadvs Man United
Midtjyllandvs Sturm Graz
Monaco vs Red Star Belgrade