The feelings surrounding Danish champions Midtjylland and Premier League giants Manchester United ahead of Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 first leg in Denmark could not be more different. For the hosts, regardless of the result, it will be an occasion to remember. Undoubtedly it will be the biggest match in their short history, welcoming one of the world’s most renowned clubs to their 11,800-capacity MCH Arena in what is their deepest run ever in European competition. For Manchester United, however, the match in Europe’s secondary competition will bring with it an ample dose of regret that they are not instead competing this week for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals.
After being beaten to a place in the Champions League knockout phase by Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United will make just their second appearance in the Europa League, or UEFA Cup, in 20 years. Yet, while nobody at Old Trafford will be thrilled to be in the competition, it could now be one of vital importance to the club and manager Louis van Gaal. Struggling in fifth place in the Premier League, six points adrift of fourth place, it represents an extra avenue to earn a place in next season’s Champions League.
“I think it is difficult to win,” Van Gaal said in Denmark. “Because there are also very good European teams in the League and we are in the last-32, so we need to win a lot of rounds still. But it is a way to come into the Champions League also, so it is a fantastic aim for us to win this cup, because also Manchester United never has won this cup.”
If Manchester United’s mood was already low at the prospect of slugging it out in the Europa League, it will not have been helped by a rash of injuries. With Matteo Darmian having dislocated his shoulder in a defeat at Sunderland on Saturday and fellow full-back Cameron Borthwick-Jackson also joining the long list of absentees with illness, the problems were already severe. And just ahead of the match with Midtjylland they have been exacerbated by a knee injury to captain Wayne Rooney that is set to keep the forward on the sidelines for six weeks. In all, United have 13 players unable to make the trip to Denmark. It could mean youngsters Donald Love and Will Keane having significant involvement.
None of that will dampen Midtjylland’s enthusiasm heading into the contest. The club only formed in 1999 following a merger between two sides from the Central Jutland region of Denmark, Ikast and Herning Fremad. They gained promotion to the Danish Superliga the following year and immediately qualified for Europe.
Their big breakthrough, though, came last season when winning the Danish championship for the first time. And they have now broken new ground in Europe, having finished second behind Napoli in the Europa League group stage and edging out a Club Brugge side that were brushed aside by Manchester United in this season’s Champions League playoff.
That progress represents a significant achievement for manager Jess Thorup, who only took over last summer after the man who led the club to the title, Glenn Riddersholm, stepped down. Thorup made the move after a spell in charge of Denmark’s Under-21 side, where he marshalled talent such as Midtjylland’s highly touted midfielder Pione Sisto.
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 2