Manchester United should ease past Sevilla - but it's all down to Jose Mourinho
On the surface, Wednesday's trip to Sevilla's Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan is precisely what Manchester United appointed Jose Mourinho for: a Champions League knock-out phase away leg against an opponent with a formidable reputation, in a stadium known for its intimidating atmosphere, where game management will be paramount.
United supporters have not had something significant to cheer about in this competition since Patrice Evra's emphatic strike cannoned off the underside of the crossbar at the Allianz Arena four years back. David Moyes' side were 33 minutes away from a place in the last four then. They conceded 72 seconds later.
Moyes would be dismissed within a fortnight and his successor fared no better in his one Champions League campaign with United.
Louis van Gaal made a habit of asphyxiating football matches until the last sliver of life dripped out of them, but it failed him away to Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 group stages, when it was arguably needed most. United twice had qualification within their grasp yet twice threw it away. Nick Powell's introduction as a third and final substitute could not prevent an early exit.
It would be a surprise if a Mourinho team allowed such slip ups in this upcoming double-header. Despite all the criticism his style attracts, there are few coaches currently working in the game better at protecting a lead, and perhaps none relish the particularities of a two-legged European tie more.
Yet there should be no need to 'knick a result' on Wednesday night. This match-up should be no close run thing. Even after the pitiful resistance put up by Porto and Basel last week, there is a case to say that it is United – not Liverpool or Manchester City – who find themselves against the last-16's weakest side.
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Though fifth in La Liga, Sevilla have lost nine of their 24 league matches. At the start of the month, they went down 5-1 in Eibar. Last month, mid-table Real Betis downed them by five goals to three in their own backyard. Victories, meanwhile, have tended to come against the division's weakest sides. Sitting six points off fourth-placed Real Madrid, who have a game in hand, few Sevillistas expect their club to grace the Champions League again next year
English observers are familiar with this season's iteration of Sevilla following those two comeback draws against Liverpool. Both the 2-2 at Anfield and the remarkable 3-3 in Spain were creditable results but, on the balance of play, Jürgen Klopp's side should have left with maximum points each time. The surprisingly heavy defeat at the hands of a distinctly average Spartak Moscow was more indicative of their inconsistent season so far.
Under Eduardo Berizzo, Sevilla scraped through Group E without even reaching a double-figure points total. Their total of nine was the lowest of any last-16 qualifier despite having one of the kinder group draws. Berizzo was dismissed in December, with Vincenzo Montella named as his replacement and results have steadied slightly – there is a Copa del Rey final to look forward to in April.
All told, though, this is a side that United should easily overcome if they play well. There is no need for a textbook ‘'away leg' performance, aiming for a narrow lead at best. Mourinho could "let the horses run free" again, blow Sevilla away in the first half hour and snuff out any semblance of a contest for the remainder.
At their best – think the win at the Emirates earlier this season – United can produce this variety of 'mixed' football, well balanced between attack and defence, and use it devastating effect.
The question is whether the United manager will break with habit and, despite playing away from home in the first leg, look to kill the tie off comfortably. It would be out of character. Indeed, he has just one first-leg away win in the latter stages of this competition to his name – Real Madrid's 3-0 victory over the might of Cyprus' Apoel Nicosia in the 2011-12 quarter-finals. His other 10 first-leg Champions League away matches have ended in six draws and four defeats.
It is a record that does not match Mourinho's reputation. This tie – against a inconsistent team that has had plenty of problems this season – provides the perfect opportunity to improve it.
Independent News Service