Manchester United and Arsenal have been drawn against good opposition in the Europa League and while both have the quality to advance, they can’t afford to take their group stage games lightly if they’re to advance.
Manchester United will face Real Sociedad, who finished sixth in LaLiga last season, Sheriff Tiraspol from Moldova (they beat Real Madrid last season in the Champions League) and the Cypriot side, Omonia Nicosia. Meanwhile Arsenal will travel to the Netherlands to play PSV Eindhoven, who lost to Rangers in the Champions League playoff in midweek, as well as to the very northern tip of Norway to meet FK Bodo/Glimt (who beat AS Roma 6-1 in the Europa Conference League last season) and Swiss side FC Zurich.
Despite losing their striker Alexander Isak to Newcastle, Real Sociedad still have a talented squad, boasting promising young talent like forward Mohamed-Ali Cho and midfielder Takefusa Kubo, established internationals like Mikel Merino and Mikel Oyarzabal, and they’re led by the 36-year-old David Silva, who will return to Manchester after playing for 10 years for City. The team plays attacking, passing football and their manager Imanol Alguacil, who took them to their first Spanish Cup win in 33 years in 2020 (played in 2021), is doing a great job.
Sheriff were one of the surprises in the Champions League last season. They shocked the football world when they beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu (2-1) last September in the Champions League, only to finish third in their group and end up in the Europa League, where they lost to Braga in the last 32 round. However, they are not as good as last year. They have a new manager in Stjepan Tomas, who didn’t really do well when he managed in Turkey. This is a young squad and the toughest thing for their opponents will be the long trip to Transnistria in Moldova.
Finally, Omonia Nicosia, coached by Scotland and Celtic legend Neil Lennon, are potentially the weakest team in the group on paper, but they have a passionate travelling support and some experienced players like Hungarian international Adam Lang, former Sunderland defender Adam Matthews and former U.S. international Mix Diskerud.
Arsenal’s group is quite similar to United in terms of types of opponent. PSV Eindhoven are obviously the toughest team and will be anxious to impress after being narrowly knocked out by Rangers (3-2 on aggregate) in the Champions League’s final playoff round. In his first season on the bench, Ruud Van Nistelrooy will come back to England, where he had many successful years as a player at Manchester United, and he has a team that can compete: witness their destruction of Ajax in the Dutch Super Cup. He has a talented team who blew away Ajax in the Dutch Super Cup back in July (5-3).
Luuk De Jong, back from Barcelona, is the captain and leader, but the likes of Cody Gakpo, Xavi Simons, Ibrahim Sangaré, Joey Veerman and Jordan Teze make this team solid and dangerous. The atmosphere at the Philips Stadion will be pretty special, too.
Arsenal’s most exotic trip, though, will be in Bodo, in the far north of Norway. The 2021 Norwegian champions were beaten by Dynamo Zagreb this week in the Champions League playoff to end up here. They play in a small stadium, on a plastic pitch, and it is enough of a logistical challenge to distract visiting teams from the task at hand. Roma and Jose Mourinho lost there twice last season!
Despite having lost some of their best players in the past 18 months — like Jens Petter Hauge’s move to AC Milan — Kjetil Knudsen is doing a great job as manager, they still play great football with intensity and they will be hard to beat in their three home games.
Finally, FC Zurich look like the weakest team in the group on paper. They won the Swiss league in 2022, but lost the manager who got them there, Andre Breitenreiter, to Hoffenheim, replacing with Franco Foda, the former Austria head coach. So far, it’s not going well this season: they’re dead-last in the Swiss Super League and the only team without a win after five games. Wilfried Gnonto, 18, who made his Italy debut last June in the Nations League, is their best player, and they did manage to keep him their summer. That said, it might be a challenge to escape this group or pose Arsenal a serious challenge.