Two continental giants clash at Old Trafford on Thursday, as Manchester United meet AC Milan in the Europa League, with both sides seeking silverware in Europe as they trail in the wake of local rivals domestically.
More accustomed to going head-to-head at the elite level, this heavyweight last-16 tie pits together a pair of once-dominant clubs, now edging closer to former glories under unfashionable but effective management.
In their first encounter for 11 years, Manchester United meet Milan for the first-ever time in Europe’s second tier competition – a sign of their diminished stature, perhaps, as other domestic rivals have surpassed them in recent times. They do, however, share a rich history together, having been drawn against one another five times previously in either the European Cup or Champions League knockout phase.
Courtesy of their relatively recent success under Jose Mourinho, United are the only club remaining in this season’s competition to have won the Europa League in its current guise, while Milan are yet to reach the final of either this incarnation or its predecessor, the UEFA Cup; only ever making it as far as the semi-final in both 1972 and 2002.
Ahead of this week’s first leg at Old Trafford, United ended local rivals Manchester City’s remarkable 21-match winning run in all competitions on Sunday, with a 2-0 away victory in the Premier League. Nevertheless, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men are still 11 points adrift of their cross-city counterparts.
With a Milan squad reborn since football first resumed last summer also currently second behind San Siro-sharing foes Inter in Serie A, it should prove another stern challenge for the Premier League side, following their impressive elimination of La Liga outfit Real Sociedad in the previous round.
Having competed in the Champions League during the autumn, but seeing defeats in their final two Group H fixtures leave them in the wake of Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig, United subsequently saw off La Real by means of a 4-0 win in Budapest’s Puskas Arena followed by a goalless draw in the home leg.
Now unbeaten in 17 consecutive games since the end of January and still basking in the glow of victory in the Manchester derby, the hosts will also have history on their side, as they have won four of their previous five games versus Milan on home soil.
Returning to the scene of their 2003 Champions League final success, when they defeated compatriots Juventus on penalties after a goalless draw, Milan travel to England amid a spell of inconsistent form, representing their first serious wobble since returning to action after the Serie A shutdown last year.
Partly attributable to a stubborn injury list, which has exposed their relative lack of squad depth, the Rossoneri have won only two of their last seven games in all competitions, allowing their bitter rivals Inter to dump them out of the Coppa Italia and overtake them at the top of the table.
However, in their two most recent away trips domestically, Milan have enjoyed two fine wins against Roma and Verona, demonstrating some resilience in the face of adversity.
One of several key men who have been unavailable to coach Stefano Pioli in recent weeks, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is particularly well-regarded in Manchester, having served the Red Devils for two years before heading off for a sojourn in MLS.
The Swedish star’s subsequent return to his spiritual home in Italy’s second city has been transformative for a team which had fallen on hard times, but the self-anointed ‘King Zlatan’ may well be missing from the Milan lineup at the Theatre of Dreams due to the latest in a succession of injuries to affect him this term.
Nevertheless, the Diavolo’s talismanic target-man was scarcely involved as they knocked out another former giant of the European game, Red Star Belgrade, in the previous round, with some of Pioli’s more youthful attacking talents instead to the fore.
Progressing unconvincingly, by the combined virtues of an own goal, two penalties and the away goals rule, the Serie A side aired all their recent frailties across two hard-fought contests with the Serbian champions, but are unlikely to find such forgiving opponents on Thursday night.