Jose Mourinho's men favourites for a reason but Sevilla can spring surprise in the round-of-16 Champions League clash, writes Andy West.
Confronted by a last-16 Champions League draw which could have yielded Real Madrid, Juventus or Bayern Munich, it’s fair to suggest that Manchester United were relieved to be paired with Sevilla.
And Jose Mourinho’s men certainly should be considered favourites for the tie, which gets underway with Wednesday’s first leg at the atmospheric Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
However, United cannot take anything for granted and their meeting with La Liga’s fifth-placed club might not prove to be as straightforward as it seems.
It has been a strange few months for the Andalusian club, who headed into the new campaign rocked by the departure of revered long-serving sporting director Monchi, whose manoeuvrings in the transfer market had kept the club competitive among the elite for more than a decade.
There was also a new manager as Eduardo Berizzo arrived from Celta Vigo to replace fellow Argentine Jorge Sampaoli, along with the tranche of new players which has become inevitable with each passing summer in Sevilla.
And perhaps unsurprisingly amid all that upheaval, Sevilla’s season so far has proven to be consistent only in its inconsistency.
How would you like to judge their campaign so far? On the one hand, you could conclude that United are set for a walk in the park by focusing on Sevilla’s embarrassing 5-3 home derby defeat to Real Betis, or the even more humiliating 5-0 thrashing at Real Madrid, when all the goals were scored in the first half.
Alternatively, though, you could point out how dangerous they can be by looking at their progression to the Copa del Rey final, helped along by a convincing 5-2 aggregate victory over Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals. Or there’s always, of course, their most famous game of the season when they roared back from three goals down to claim a dramatic 3-3 draw against Liverpool.
The strong sense that it’s impossible to know what to expect from Sevilla is enhanced by the fact that they are under new management again after Berizzo, who struggled to get the team playing in a convincing fashion, was controversially fired in December just a month after being diagnosed with cancer.
His replacement is Vincenzo Montella, who enjoyed a moderate amount of success with a series of clubs in his native Italy before heading overseas for the first time to take up the vacancy in southern Spain.
We’re less than two months into Montella’s reign so it’s too early to draw any meaningful conclusions, but he has so far failed to address their inconsistency – just when it looked like their season was finally getting on a roll, having knocked Atletico out of the cup, they showed all their bad old ways by suffering a 5-1 loss at Eibar a couple of weeks ago.
Montella has, however, shown greater consistency in his team selection, with two players in particular benefitting from his arrival: attacking midfielder Franco Vazquez and central enforcer Steven N’Zonzi.
Vazquez had been in and out of the team under Berizzo, but he has become a regular selection since the arrival of the new manager and started to show the form which made him such a hit upon his arrival at the start of last season, with his ability to get between the lines of the opposition defence and midfield proving a valuable asset.
N’Zonzi’s renaissance is even more dramatic. The former Stoke man was strongly tipped to leave the club in the January transfer window and didn’t play from mid-November until the end of the year, but he has been welcomed back into the fold by Montella and will play a key role against United.
Experienced Argentine international Ever Banega has also returned from injury to join Vazquez and N’Zonzi in a strong central core, and considering United’s well-documented problems in midfield that could be a key area for the home team to exploit.
But with Sevilla this season, you just never know.