Preview: FC Midtjylland vs. Manchester United

Sports Mole previews Thursday's Europa League last-32 first leg between FC Midtjylland and Manchester United from Denmark.

Manchester United will play a Europa League match for the first time since 2012 when they travel to FC Midtjylland for the first leg of their last-32 clash on Thursday night.

The English club's elimination from the group stages of the Champions League saw them drop into the Europa , but Midtjylland negotiated their way through Group D in this competition to make the knockout stage.


Midtjylland

Pione Sisto of FC Midtjylland (R) reacts after scoring against Club Brugge during the UEFA Europa League group D football match between FC Midtjylland vs Club Brugge KV in Herning, Denmark on December 10, 2015© Getty Images

With all respect to Midtjylland, when the draw for this stage of the Europa was announced, Man United would have been quite pleased. The Danish side managed to sneak through Group D behind Napoli to make the round of 32, but they are extremely inexperienced at this level of football. Indeed, Midtjylland are competing in the spring phase of a UEFA competition for the first time in what is their maiden campaign in the Europa League.

While the hosts are the underdogs for this tie, they have already beaten English opposition in this season's Europa League, with Southampton dumped out of the competition in the playoffs by Midtjylland courtesy of a 2-1 aggregate win. Overall, Midtjylland's home record against English opposition is won two, drawn one and lost one.

Midtjylland have not played a competitive match since drawing 1-1 with Club Brugge in their final Group D Europa match, however, due to the winter break in Danish football. In the Superliga, they are currently third in the table, but they have not played a league match since the start of December.

As a result, each of their last four fixtures have been friendlies and it will be interesting to see what level of fitness has been maintained in the off-season. The Danish outfit are without a victory in their last four European games and only managed two wins in the group phase, which included heavy defeats, both home and away, to Napoli.

There is no question that Midtjylland will enter this tie as the underdogs, but a positive result on home soil, where they won their last friendly against Horsens, would stand them in good stead for the return at Old Trafford next week. Defeat, however, could see their Europa League campaign come to an end before they resume league duties.

Recent form: WWLLLD
Recent form (all competitions): LDDLDW


Man United

Louis van Gaal watches on during the Premier League game between Manchester United and Stoke on February 2, 2016© Getty Images

Due to their struggles in the Premier League, Man United might well see the Europa League as their best chance to qualify for the Champions League next season. The Red Devils are currently six points adrift of the top four in the league, but with the winners of the Europa League advancing straight into next season's group stage of Europe's premier competition, Man United will be keen to make a serious challenge for this trophy.

It is the first time since the 2011-12 season that Man United are competing in the Europa League. They overcame Ajax to reach the round of 16 during that campaign, but bowed out to an impressive Athletic Bilbao side. The club's challenge for the crown, however, will be strongly contested by the likes of Porto, Tottenham Hotspur, Bayer Leverkusen and Napoli, who will all fancy their chances of advancing deep into the competition.

There is no escaping the fact that it was a desperately disappointing Champions League group-stage campaign for the Red Devils, who bowed out after finishing third in Group B. They only won two of their six matches in the section and only scored seven times. Eight points were enough to finish above fourth-placed CKSA Moscow, but defeat at Wolfsburg on the final matchday saw them finish third behind PSV Eindhoven.

Louis van Gaal's side actually failed to win any of their three away games in the group stages of the Champions League and they will enter this match off the back of a 2-1 defeat at Sunderland in the league at the weekend. That led to more pressure on Van Gaal, but the Dutchman remains in charge of first-team affairs despite a host of speculation.

Man United do not actually return to league action until February 28, when they take on Arsenal at home. Before that, they will travel to Shrewsbury Town in the fifth round of the FA Cup, before welcoming Midtjylland for the return at Old Trafford next week. Missing out on the top four in the league would be stomached if Van Gaal delivered the FA Cup and Europa League, but there is no question that performances will need to improve.

Recent form: WLLL
Recent form (all competitions): WLWWDL


Team News

Wayne Rooney of Manchester United looks thoughtful during the UEFA Champions League Group B match between Manchester United FC and PSV Eindhoven at Old Trafford on November 25, 2015© Getty Images

The home team will be without the services of experienced midfielder Jakob Poulsen, who is suspended after picking up three yellow cards in the group stages.

Twenty-nine-year-old goalkeeper Johan Dahlin is also nursing a knee problem and is not expected to feature, but Croatian forward Martin Pusic, who has previously played for Hull City, is fit and available, as is the highly-rated Pione Sisto.

As for Man United, skipper Wayne Rooney was not included in the travelling squad on Wednesday, meaning that Anthony Martial should switch from a wide position to centre-forward.

Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Marouane Fellaini were also not included in the squad, while Matteo Darmian misses out after dislocating his shoulder against Sunderland at the weekend.

A selection of youngsters have made the trip, however, including Donald Love, who made his debut at the weekend. Regan Poole, Joe Riley and James Weir will also make at least the bench for the visitors.

Memphis Depay has struggled for regular action in recent weeks, but the Dutchman is expected to come into a wide position, while Ander Herrera and Paddy McNair are also pushing for inclusion.

The likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young, Phil Jones and Luke Shaw remain on the sidelines for the Premier League outfit.

Midtjylland possible starting lineup:
Anderson; Novak, Sviatchenko, Hansen, Romer; Royer, Poulsen, Sparv, Olsson, Sisto; Pusic

Man United possible starting lineup:
De Gea; Love, McNair, Smalling, Blind; Schneiderlin, Herrera; Depay, Mata, Lingard; Martial


Head To Head

These two clubs have never met in a competitive match, but Man United have faced Danish opposition on six occasions - recording four wins in the process. Two of those victories have come in Denmark, but they were all in the Champions League.

The Premier League side beat Brondby 6-2 on their way to winning the competition in the 1998-99 season, but lost 1-0 at Copenhagen during the group stages of the 2006-07 Champions League. Their last trip to Denmark ended in a 3-0 win over Aalborg in September 2008.

Midtjylland, as mentioned, have won two of their previous four UEFA matches against English opposition. They beat Southampton in the Europa League playoffs earlier this season and also faced Manchester City during the 2008-09 UEFA Cup - losing on penalties in the second qualifying round.


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We say: Midtjylland 1-2 Man United

A Man United team at full throttle and indeed full fitness would expect to make light work of Midtjylland, even in Denmark. That is not the case at the moment, but the visitors are still the strong favourites.

It might not be a classic as the home team attempt to sit back and play on the counter, but Van Gaal's side should have enough to claim a first-leg lead ahead of the return in Manchester next week.


Who will win the first leg in Denmark?

FC Midtjylland
Draw
Man United
FC Midtjylland
22.1%
Draw
14.9%
Man United
63.0%
Manchester's Wayne Rooney scores the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League play-off round second leg football match between Club Brugge and Manchester United at Jan Breydel stadium in Bruges, Belgium on August 26, 2015
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