Manchester United survived a huge scare in the Europa League last night, needing a stoppage-time winner to beat Cypriot minnows Omonia Nicosia at Old Trafford.
Scott McTominay struck three minutes into injury time to spare United’s blushes and keep them in touch with Real Sociedad at the top of Group E.
United now sit comfortably in second place, after recovering from their Matchday 1 defeat to Sociedad and have won their next three games.
In previous seasons, second position would have been enough to secure safe passage through to the next round of the competition.
However, as reported in Sporting News, recent changes to the Europa League format now means top spot carries a huge advantage with automatic progression to the next round.
First place in the group now gifts a passage directly to the Round-of -16, whereas second place now means a tricky looking Round-of-32 playoff against a team dropping down from this year’s Champions League, in order to progress.
Adding to the tricky situation, this year’s Champions League drop out’s look particularly strong. Barcelona, Juventus and Ajax all need minor miracles to avoid dropping into the Europa League with Sevilla, AC Milan and Atletico Madrid also all odds on to fall into Europe’s second-tier competition.
Whilst the prospect of these glamour ties are mouthwatering on paper, Erik ten Hag would much prefer to avoid these testing two-legged fixtures which would add to the already jam-packed post-World Cup schedule.
It is expected that United and Sociedad will both with their Matchday 5 fixtures, with United at home to Sheriff Tiraspol while Sociedad will travel to bottom of the group Omonia.
This scenario is likely to create a direct showdown in Spain between United and Sociedad on Matchday 6 to decide who secures safe passage through.
The Europa League group placing is decided on goal difference, with United currently sitting on plus 3 and Sociedad on plus 7.
This throws more importance on Matchday 5. United would have expected to bump their GD last night but ran into a stubborn defence and inspired goalkeeper, as they allowed only one goal.
United will be hoping for the same spirited Omonia performance in their game against Sociedad and will attempt to eat into the difference at home to Sheriff.
Regardless of goal difference, United will need to win in Spain. Not the easiest task against a Sociedad side who have cruised through the group having beaten United at Old Trafford on Matchday 1.
Ten Hag’s message to his side will no doubt be to ‘win the group’ and every goal in the last two fixtures is going to prove vital.