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A first for everything
Manchester United travels to Spain for a quarter-final test against a relatively unknown side in Granada CF on Thursday.
The team from Andalusia is playing in their first European competition after earning a qualification spot when they finished seventh in La Liga last season.
Diego Martinez’s side has exceeded expectations to get to the last eight of this competition.
For United, this competition is likely their last chance to get a trophy this season, they lost Leicester City in the FA Cup, and they are 14 points back of Manchester City in the Premier League title race.
Striker Anthony Martial could be out for the season after sustaining a severe knee injury while playing for France in their World Cup qualifiers.
Marcus Rashford scored the equaliser against Brighton this past weekend, but he was taken off due to a knock and might not be ready in time for Thursday.
However, Edinson Cavani played well in his 82 minutes of action on Sunday for the Reds.
It’s not just in attack, however, where Solskjaer has injury concerns.
Defender Alex Telles trained with the team, but he might miss tomorrow’s match due to illness.
Eric Bailly is out after testing positive for COVID while on international duty with the Ivory Coast.
Dean Henderson has started the last seven matches in all competitions for the Red Devils, but David de Gea will be pushing to regain his spot as the number one keeper.
On the other side, Granada manager Diego Martinez has had to deal with injuries all season long.
At the back, Carlos Neva, Dimitri Foulquier and Quini are all expected to miss the first leg.
Neyder Lozano remains on the long-term absentee list for Los Nazaríes.
Colombian striker Luis Suarez is still recovering from a hamstring problem and unlikely to feature.
Road to the Quarters
After finishing third in their Champions League group, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side took out Real Sociedad in the round of 32 by a 4-0 aggregate score.
The Reds followed that up with a 2-1 aggregate win over AC Milan.
It’s been a much longer road for Granada to get to this stage of the competition.
They first had to beat Teuta in the second qualifying round 4-0 before taking care of Locomotive Tbilisi 2-0 in the following round.
From there they ousted Swedish side Malmo 3-1 in a play-off to qualify for the Europa League group stage.
They finished second in Group E of the Europa League behind PSV with 11 points.
In the round of 32, they outlasted Napoli 3-2 on aggregate.
Then they defeated Solkjaer’s former club Molde in the next round by the same score.
Struggling with the Elite
Granada is still relatively new to La Liga. It’s their second season in the top-flight since earning promotion after coming in second in the Segunda Division in Spain in 2018-19.
While they’ve been reasonably respectable, currently in 9th in this campaign, they still have some work to do if they want to compete with Spain’s top teams.
Los Nazaríes have played the top four teams in La Liga (Atletico, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla) five times this season in league play, losing four times and winning once (1-0 over Sevilla).
In those five matches, they’ve shown their inexperience, being outscored by a margin of 13-3.
Night and Day
Los Nazaries are not a particularly strong defensive unit, conceding a league-high 49 goals so far in La Liga, but they’ve played much better in that department in the Europa League.
Counting their three qualifying matches, Granada has kept seven clean sheets in this competition.
Balancing the attack
Granada doesn’t have the same high profile talent as their Europa League opponents, but what they do possess is a good balance of scoring, especially in this competition.
Eight different players have gotten their name on the Europa League’s scoresheet this season if you include their qualifying matches.
Yangel Herrera leads the way with five goals so far, while Jorje Molina, Darwin Machis, and Roberto Soldado all have three.
Soldado leads the team with six goals domestically and has come to life in this competition.
He scored a goal in each of their two games versus Molde in the last round.
While Man United hasn’t been in this competition as long as Granada, they have also gotten balanced scoring.
So far five different players (Fernandes, Pogba, James, Rashford, Diallo) have gotten their names on the scoresheet for the Reds.
In all European competitions this season, United have scored 21 goals.
Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford have scored 13 of those goals.
In their first European campaign, Granada has made the most of this opportunity.
They are the first side since RB Leipzig in 2017-18 to reach the quarter-finals of this competition in their first go-round.
If they can get past Man United, they will become the first team to make the Europa League semi’s since Spanish side Villareal did it in 2003-04.
When it comes to Man United, making it this far in a European season is a familiar feeling.
The Reds have reached the last eight of a major European competition for the 27th time.
They’ve progressed beyond this stage in 17 of their previous 26 ties.
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says tomorrow is probably the most crucial match of the season for his club.
“It’s very big for us, of course. You know the cliché that the next game is the most important? We have to live by that principle. Every player knows that if you get a chance to play in a quarter-final in Europe for Man United, this is a massive game, and it’s an important game for you and for me as well; I’m the manager, and I know that. Of course, it’s just the first half in a two-legged affair, but it’s a big game for us.”
The first leg goes Thursday at 8 pm from Estadio Los Carmenes. (JSL).