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United, Saints eye Euro progress

23 November 2016, 15:34

Paris - Europa League nights are a distraction for some, given far lower prize money than the Champions League, but a means of staying in touch for others such as Manchester United, who are seeking to reach the last 32 on Thursday.

United are one of five former European champions playing in what, compared with the Champions League, they view as a bridesmaid's competition.

A fifth-place finish in the English Premier League kept them away from the European game's top table for a second straight year -- last season bringing an ignominious exit to, of all teams, five-times European champions Liverpool.

Jose Mourinho, thus far thwarted in his ambition to become the first coach to win the Champions League with three different clubs after glory with Porto and Inter Milan but failure with Chelsea and Real Madrid, must currently eye more modest goals as his side host Feyenoord.

United stand a point behind the Dutch and Fenerbahce, who beat them in their last outing in Istanbul to open up a fascinating three-way battle for last 32 berths.

The last time Mourinho was involved in the tournament, albeit in its former UEFA Cup incarnation, he won it with Porto, 13 years ago.

But after two defeats for two wins so far this season with United, who his Porto side famously knocked out of the Champions League a year later, there is a distinct possibility the Red Devils will miss out.

After the Fenerbahce loss, Mourinho accused his men of "sleeping" on the job and looking as if they were "playing a summer friendly."

Local media reports Tuesday suggested Mourinho would offer the Feyenoord test as a springboard for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a bit-part player since his summer move from Dortmund.

Also read: Ibrahimovic says may 'conquer' US

"Obviously he is not happy but he is transforming his frustration in a good way which is close the mouth and work hard and try to adapt," Mourinho said of the Armenian midfielder.

With Fenerbahce meeting winless Group A tailenders Zorya Luhansk in the other game, United need to go all out for the win if they are to keep their campaign on the rails.

Other English interest centres on Southampton, who following their success over Inter Milan, another former European champion forced to slum it with the B listers, meet surprise group leaders Sparta Prague.

The Saints beat the Czechs 3-0 earlier in the tournament but since then the latter have snatched three wins on the trot.

A win will see Prague qualify -- but they must first see off English opposition for the first time in three decades.

Inter, bottom with one win for three losses and having just appointed Stefano Pioli in place of sacked Frank de Boer, held city neighbours Milan to a draw which cost the latter second spot in Serie A -- but they themselves languish in ninth.

However, a win over Israel's Hapoel Beer Sheva, currently a point above them, would lose the gap on Southampton to a single point -- if the Saints lose.

Four sides have qualified to date -- Zenit Saint Petersburg from Group D where Ireland's Dundalk can still make it -- former European champions Ajax from Group G, Shakhtar Donetsk, who have dominated Group H and Schalke, yet to drop points in Group I.

Schalke meet a Nice side who will be missing star striker Mario Balotelli after the Italian pulled a calf muscle in training. His absence will complicate Nice's attempts to chase a win that would keep them in contention. The Cote d'Azur side are currently bottom of the group.

The expanded groups format has, if nothing else, extended the creed to the farthest-flung parts of the European game and Qarabag can become the first team from Azerbaijan to reach the knockout phase of a UEFA event.

Gurban Gurbanov's men first need a win at Czech outfit Slovan Liberec or else will hope PAOK Salonika of Greece drop points at leaders Fiorentina.

"By playing in Europe, Qarabag are telling the world that Azerbaijan exists," midfielder Maksim Medvedev told UEFA.com.

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