Competition favourites Manchester United host Serie A side Roma in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final on Thursday, with the tie set to play a large role in defining both clubs’ seasons.
Coming into their fifth semi-final since the start of last year, United have yet to progress to a final during that time, while the under-performing Italian outfit arrive at Old Trafford on a run of just one victory from their last seven league games.
In the semi-finals for the second successive year, Manchester United have been imperious in Europa League action since dropping down from the Champions League, as they previously dismissed Spanish sides Real Sociedad and Granada 4-0 on aggregate and saw off Roma’s Serie A counterparts AC Milan in between.
Though they have already lost four semis during boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s relatively brief reign – including last season’s one-off tie with Sevilla – the Red Devils are now favourites to lift their first trophy since 2017’s final success under Jose Mourinho.
Not only are they the only Premier League side still within 10 points of their irrepressible local rivals Manchester City, but United are also unbeaten in their last 17 home games in the Europa League (winning 13 and drawing four), and had won five in a row in the competition before two draws earlier this spring.
Always a source of inspiration for Solskjaer’s side, Bruno Fernandes has consistently excelled in this competition – with a remarkable 17 goals and 11 assists from 30 Europa League outings for United and former club Sporting.
The Portuguese playmaker featured for a full 90 minutes in United’s weekend stalemate with old foes Leeds United – despite Solskjaer omitting both Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani ahead of Thursday’s big game – as his team extended their unbeaten away record in the English top flight to 24 matches.
Following the white-hot controversy of last week, United now face Roma twice in the space of seven days – with an Old Trafford fixture against bitter rivals Liverpool awkwardly wedged in between – as they attempt to end a run of semi-final failures and earn their place in a major final on merit.
Since the Europa League’s return in February, Italy’s last side standing in continental competition have hit a domestic downturn, which reached its nadir last Sunday as Roma crashed to a 3-2 defeat against relegation battlers Cagliari. Coming just a week after losing to Torino – another team at the wrong end of Serie A – Paulo Fonseca is acutely aware that any hopes of saving his job rest on going all the way in Europe.
Balancing their continental ambitions with achieving domestic consistency has, then, proved beyond Fonseca’s seventh-placed outfit in recent times, with their whole campaign now to be judged against whether they can reach the club’s first European final in 30 years.
Visiting the Theatre of Dreams may give Roma nightmares though, as Fonseca has been particularly concerned by his team’s inability to replicate positive performances at Stadio Olimpico when away from Italy’s Eternal City: the Giallorossi have now won just one of their last eight league matches on the road.
Former captain Edin Dzeko has faltered since an aborted attempt to leave in January and a subsequent brush with COVID-19 – failing to find the net in any of his last 12 Serie A appearances – his longest domestic drought in some 13 years.
In the build-up to Thursday’s game, the former Manchester City frontman acknowledged that United are favourites to progress to the final, but also stated his team’s steadfast belief that they can make next month’s showpiece finale in Gdansk.
Certainly, having kicked off their campaign by comfortably topping Group A in the autumn, since the knockout rounds commenced the Giallorossi have disposed of their previous opponents quite straightforwardly – though Ajax were perhaps unfortunate to be ousted in the quarter-finals – with a total of five wins from six since the action resumed in February.
Spanish striker Borja Mayoral – on loan from Real Madrid – has registered four goals across the knockout rounds to become the competition’s joint-top marksman this season, with seven in total, and has often outshone his more experienced teammate Dzeko.
Partly thanks to Mayoral’s penalty-box prowess, his current club have now made it into the Europa League’s final four for the first time and arrive in England not only in search of some rare silverware, but also aiming stay in with a shot of securing the Champions League spot reserved for next month’s winners.
While current form is definitely against the Giallorossi, precedent is too, as United and Roma have been paired together three times previously in UEFA competition (with their six Champions League encounters curiously taking place within a 12-month period from April 2007 to April 2008) and the Italians’ record makes grim reading.
In fact, Roma have won only one of their 17 previous European fixtures in England, losing ten of those games – including three at Old Trafford.
Manchester United Europa League form:
Manchester United form (all competitions):
Roma Europa League form:
Roma form (all competitions):