Manchester United have dropped into the Europa League, and Kevin Hatchard expects them to make a winning start...
"United took this tournament seriously last season, and on neutral territory, they are rightful favourites here."
Real Sociedad v Manchester United
Thursday 18 February, 17:55
Live on BT Sport 1
Real Sociedad keen to maintain momentum
This has been an impressive spell from Basque giants Real Sociedad. They reached last season's Copa del Rey final (they won't play the game against old foes Athletic Club until fans can return), and they secured a top-six finish in La Liga. La Real are currently fifth in the Spanish top flight, and although they weren't always at their brilliant best in the Europa League this term, they did squeeze into the last 32.
Having lost influential playmaker Martin Odegaard in the summer, Real Sociedad were able to bring in midfield magician David Silva to fill the void. Winger Mikel Oyarzabal continues to be one of the team's outstanding performers, while Swedish international striker Alexander Isak is a regular goalscorer (he has netted in his last five La Liga games), having struggled earlier in his career at Borussia Dortmund. Adnan Januzaj, who burned brightly but briefly as a Manchester United player, is an option out wide.
Oyarzabal was expected to miss the game with injury, but made a surprise recovery against Getafe. Asier Illarramendi has recently recovered from injury, and could start again.
United keen to right wrongs of UCL debacle
The brutal truth is that Manchester United shouldn't be in the Europa League, but their remarkable collapse in the Champions League has brought them back to a tournament they reached the semi-finals of last season. Although United have clearly become more competitive in this campaign under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they are yet to win a trophy under the Norwegian, with a slew of semi-finals the only tangible sign of progress in the cups.
Although United are well-placed in the Premier League, Champions League qualification is not yet secure, and winning this competition would offer an alternative route. To his credit, Solskjaer took this competition seriously last term, and I would expect him to do so again. United's squad is strong enough in all areas to fight on multiple fronts.
The Champions League campaign was a confusing one. Victory in Paris against PSG was a tactical triumph, and the Red Devils wiped the floor with RB Leipzig in a 5-0 win at Old Trafford. However, a careless reverse in Turkey against Istanbul Basaksehir was the catalyst for a collapse that saw them lose three of their last four group-stage matches.
Solskjaer is expected to make changes from the weekend's disappointing draw at West Brom, but don't expect a scratch side. Paul Pogba is injured, while Anthony Martial could replace Edinson Cavani as the attacking spearhead, with Mason Greenwood (who has signed a new contract) moving into the front four.
United rightful favourites
Real Sociedad are a good side, but they only won twice in the group stage, and lost at home to Napoli. If you look at their performances against top sides this season, they have lost to Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, and they only drew with Real Madrid.
This won't be a home game for La Real (it has been switched to Turin because of travel restrictions), and if United field a strong side, I think they are an attractive price to win the first leg at 2.265/4. On the road, United have won 12 of their last 18 away games in all competitions, and this game should hold no fears for them.
Overs/unders a tight call
The market is split when it comes to Over 2.5 Goals (trading at 1.875/6) and Under 2.5 Goals (priced at 1.991/1). I can see why - five of United's last seven away games have featured fewer than three goals, but in general this season they have been scoring freely on the road. Solskjaer's side has scored two goals or more on 12 separate occasions on the road this term.
I'd rather back United to score two goals or more at 11/10 on the Sportsbook.
Bruno to land a blow
It's always worth keeping an eye on the team news with such a compacted schedule, but the absence of Pogba means that there's a good chance that Bruno Fernandes will get yet another start. There's a strong argument to say the Portuguese international is United's best player, and he is priced at a hefty 9/5 to score at any time. He has scored in three of his last four appearances, and has rattled in 19 goals in all competitions. If he starts the game, back him.