Man Utd rivals Sevilla were Europe kings but now face relegation fight

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Manchester United have already defeated three Spanish clubs in the Europa League this season after overcoming Real Sociedad, Barcelona and Real Betis. Now, Sevilla await in the quarter-finals of the competition and usually, such a tie would strike some fear into the Red Devils, but their nightmare run suggests the tie could be closer to a stroll in the park for Erik ten Hag’s men than a difficult tie to navigate as one might normally expect.

As six-time winners of the competition, no team has been more successful in the Europa League than Sevilla. And their recent dominance has somewhat added some prestige to the trophy previously dismissed as a Champions League wannabe.

Coaches no longer see it as an inconvenience but a realistic back door to Champions League qualification after watching the Andalusian outfit win the trophy three times in a row between 2014 and 2016. They were feared as the Europa League kings, brushing aside Liverpool in the 2015/16 final and United – then managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – back in the 2019/20 semi-finals.

That same year, Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan learnt a harsh lesson after a 3-2 defeat in the final as Sevilla celebrated success again. As United prepare for a reunion at Old Trafford on Thursday, however, the mood is nowhere near as optimistic after a catastrophic La Liga campaign in Spain.

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Only last season, Sevilla fans were dreaming of an unlikely title triumph after challenging Barcelona and Real Madrid all the way. In the end, Carlo Ancelotti’s side held on to clinch the title with Sevilla securing Champions League football. It was the third season in a row they had achieved the feat under Julen Lopetegui.

But had the Spanish outfit that had made their living by selling off their big-name stars bit off more than they could chew and just a few months into the season, Lopetegui was sacked with the club down in 18th place. Staring a potential relegation battle in the face, president Fernando Reges insisted the club would recover from their poor start to the season and dismissed the impact of losing their popular coach.

“There is a Sevilla before and another one post-Lopetegui,” he said. “Before Lopetegui, Sevilla were fighting to get into Europe. Now, the fans want Champions League and to win La Liga.”

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But the Sevilla that Reges referred was quickly decimated in the summer. Jules Kounde signed for Barcelona and Diego Carlos joined Aston Villa, while attacking duo Lucas Ocampos and Luuk de Jong left for Ajax and PSV Eindhoven respectively. Four players whom played a key role in their Europa League triumph were gone and the replacements were uninspiring.

Ageing La Liga heroes Ivan Rakitic and Isco seemed to lose their magic as the chances dried up, with Rafa Mir unable to deliver the same amount of goals as he did last season. Sevilla’s struggles saw them fall into the bottom three, while Lopetegui quickly landed himself another role at Wolves.

Jorge Sampaoli was brought in to replace the former Spain boss, but his second spell at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan was just as disastrous as the first, if not more so. He won only 13 of his 31 games in charge and the last straw was a 6-1 hiding at the hands of Atletico Madrid in early March.

After just six months in charge, the 63-year-old was axed and Jose Luis Mendilibar was brought in to steer them clear of the drop zone. A 2-0 win over Cadiz and a spirited draw with Celta Vigo, despite going down to 10 men, shows signs of progress.

Still, this Sevilla side – even with the former United alums Alex Telles and Adnan Januzaj – are a long way off their giant-killing best and they are only five points above the drop zone. United are yet to beat Sevilla in the three meetings between the two sides, something Mendilibar will be using to give his side a competitive edge.

But with Ten Hag’s men much improved this season and Sevilla a shadow of their former selves, it represents the best opportunity for the Dutchman to end their winless run and knock out their Spanish foes, as they surge on towards another possible trophy.

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