A rare Europa League campaign begins for Manchester United this week, and Kevin Hatchard believes they can make a flying start...
"Midtjylland scraped into the last 32, and their recent league form is disappointing. There isn't as much for United to fear here as you might think."
Midtjylland v Manchester United
Thursday February 18, 18:00
Live on BT Sport 2
Some football fans are still very po-faced about the Europa League, and an unusual entry into the competition from Manchester United has doubtless provoked sniggers elsewhere, especially across town at the Etihad Stadium. But if Louis Van Gaal's men take this competition seriously and achieve consistent results, they could snag a Champions League qualification that is looking unlikely through other means, as United are currently six points off the Premier League's top four.
Their first obstacle is Danish champions Midtjylland, who made a rip-roaring start to the competition by knocking out Southampton, and then scraped through the group stage despite some heavy defeats. Napoli beat them 5-0 in Italy and 4-1 in Denmark, and they went down 1-0 in Poland against Legia Warsaw. However, Jess Thorup's men ultimately earned their place in the last 32, and the reward is a clash with one of the biggest clubs in world football.
With a trip to lower-league Shrewsbury on the cards in the FA Cup, the oft-criticised Van Gaal has no need to keep his powder dry for this one, although he has had to deal with injury difficulties throughout a problematic campaign. It's hard to predict exactly what he'll do at this stage of the week, but a team made up entirely of youngsters against an enthusiastic and organised Midtjylland would be asking for trouble.
Van Gaal's difficult position was made still tougher by the weekend's defeat at Sunderland, but I thought the hosts were sensational on the day, and United's general away form hasn't been too bad of late. They won 1-0 at Liverpool, conceded a last-gasp equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Chelsea, and comfortably won 3-1 at Derby County in the FA Cup. If you bear in mind the hosts have won just one of their last four home games in all competitions, and that their title defence is wobbling after three losses in five games, United's price of 1.715/7 for the win starts to look understandable.
I can't escape the conclusion that the hosts aren't quite the team they were at the end of last season and at the start of this one, and even Thorup admits his side needs a miracle to win over two legs. There'll be a decent atmosphere at the MCH Arena, although some United fans will protest over what they see as high ticket prices, but there's nothing for the visitors to fear. If Van Gaal uses a good blend of young players and established talent, United should win.
Back Manchester United -0.5 & -1.0 on the Asian Handicap at 1.8810/11