Manchester United have managed only two victories in 22 previous away matches against Spanish opposition. This is the statistic José Mourinho’s team have to improve in their Europa League semi-final first leg against Celta Vigo on Thursday night to be in pole position for the return at Old Trafford next week.
The poor run stretches back 60 years to a 5-3 defeat at Athletic Bilbao, with those two wins not arriving until this millennium. In April 2002 United defeated Deportivo La Coruña, Vigo’s traditional rivals, in a Champions League quarter‑final courtesy of goals from David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy. In September 2010 Valencia were defeated 1-0 at the Mestalla due to a Javier Hernández goal in a group meeting.
Given this record, and how cagey European semi-finals often are, a draw, particularly a scoring one, would not be a disastrous result. But Mourinho has other ideas. “We’ve struggled in the Premier League, it’s been complicated, but we are here to win,” he said. “It’s the same for both of us. When somebody arrives in the semi-final they want to be in the final. The Europa League is a long competition. To be in the final the team has to play the group stages, three knockout phases, has to travel a lot so when you arrive in the semi‑final you want to be in the final. Celta wants [to] and we want [to].”
Celta have lost all three matches since eliminating Genk 4-3 on aggregate in the quarter-finals. But this was partly due to Eduardo Berizzo, their Argentinian head coach, resting players before a historic tie for the club: their first European semi-final.
This has not escaped Mourinho, who also pointed to their safe 11th position in La Liga. “Celta is here [for a reason]. Very good balance, almost every team in the knockout phases were teams of the same level. It says everything they are in the semi-final,” he said. “Because of their situation in La Liga, their situation is comfortable, they manage to think just about the Europa League, to rest players, to be at the maximum of their condition, so it’s a difficult match for us.
“I don’t think they’re going to come and enjoy the match. If that was the case they wouldn’t have played with the second team against Bilbao and lost 3-0 [on Sunday]. They have lost two matches in La Liga playing with their second teams so it’s very clear they have come to win.”
When United’s record against Spanish opposition was put to Berizzo, he said: “We hope first of all the statistics stay at just two wins away from England. How do you beat Manchester United? By being faithful to who we are. I think this team has an identity and they believe in this identity. A lot of pressing, a lot of possession. Believing in a sustained attack. The only way is to be faithful to our identity.”
Vigo’s main threat is the rejuvenated Iago Aspas, the forward who failed to score a Premier League goal for Liverpool in two years at the club. The 29-year-old has 25 goals in all competitions, form that led to a debut for Spain in the winter. Aspas is part of a frontline that also includes John Guidetti and Pione Sisto, who last year scored against United for Midtjylland in the home and away legs of the last-32 stage.
Of Aspas’s upward trajectory, which comes in the Galician’s second spell at Vigo, Berizzo said: “More than any influence from myself, Iago has experienced a personal maturity that has been more than the influence of a coach like me. He’s been very comfortable since he came [back here]. He’s matured a lot. He’s assumed leadership of the side. Playing on the right has liberated him and he’s able to combine better with the centre-forwards”
Mourinho again complained about the nine matches United played in April but Celta had the same number. United’s injury crisis has eased as the centre-backs Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly are all fit again. With United’s Champions League hopes via a Premier League place now out of their hands, qualification by winning the second-tier European club completion is the best hope.
Mourinho said: “In relation to the Europa League it’s very important Jones and Smalling come on time. We have two matches in one week against Celta, important to have everyone back. In relation to again being available for the Premier League it’s too late because in the past month we played nine matches, seven of them in the Premier League and we had too many problems, too many players [injured]. The perspective is different because the Europa League becomes even more important and it’s good to have three players back that give us more options.”
Afouteza is the Spanish word that can be seen all over Vigo before the first leg. It translates as a “willingness of spirit to face troubles” and possessing the “strength of character” to do so. The hope is that it will inspire a famous victory over United in the team’s first meeting with them.
Yet in an uneven campaign United will also need to find something special to claim a third victory on Spanish soil in what is their 58th game this season.
Berizzo added: “More than feared, Manchester United are to be respected. We have played against great teams and United is definitely one of them, historically, very clearly. But we will win with conviction, identity and with heart, at least we hope to.”