Progressing to the knockouts is always the most crucial thing, but being among the seeded teams as a group winner when the draw for the last 32 draw is made should not be overlooked.
United will make things easier on themselves by winning their group and making sure they are seeded. That is important because winning the Europa League offers a genuinely accessible route into the Champions League when a top four Premier League finish is, for now, a way off.
Having won it in 2016/17, while simultaneously finishing outside the top four domestically, United know only too well the benefits of going all the way in the secondary competition.
Champions League football is a must, both for the revenue it brings – directly and indirectly – and the additional lure it holds when targeting players in the transfer market.
Fortunately for United, despite defeat away against Astana on matchday five, winning the group is something that remains firmly in their hands as they prepare to welcome AZ on matchday six.
Both teams have already qualified for the knockout stages, with United a point ahead of the Dutch club in first place. It means all Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team have to do to win the group is avoid defeat. And as long as United aren’t beaten they will be seeded for the first knockout round.
Although a lot is still to be decided on matchday six in terms, United are already aware of several teams the could face in the last 32 if they fail to win their group.
Five-time winners Sevilla, the side that also knocked United out of the Champions League in 2017/18, are among the top seeds after already guaranteeing first place in Group A. Celtic, who will always pose a threat by raising their game against an English club, and Espanyol are the other sides that are confirmed seeds from the group stage.
Then there are the Champions League dropouts to consider. Ajax, Red Bull Salzburg, Inter and Benfica have all now entered the Europa League and will be seeded. For now, at least, United would be better off avoiding all of them, each with their unique threats and dangers.
There are no guarantees that United won’t get a difficult knockout draw if they win their group, with Bayer Leverkusen, Olympiacos, Club Brugge and Shakhtar Donetsk the four Champions League dropouts that will make up the unseeded pot. But the prospects are better.
APOEL of Cyprus are currently the only other confirmed non-seeded team. But this is about playing the percentages and giving yourself the best chance where you can.
Ultimately, United will have no choice but to face the best in order to win the competition. But for a team with minimal experience of winning two-legged knockout ties, gaining some initial momentum against a more favourable opponent would be a better way to go about it.
The only guarantee for the last 32 is that, whatever happens, United cannot be drawn against AZ, having qualified from the group, or another English team (Wolves, Arsenal).
|?Group||Seeded?||?Unseeded||In the Hunt?|
|?B||tbc||tbc?||Copenhagen, Malmo, Dynamo Kyiv?|
|?C||?tbc||?tbc||Basel (Q)?, Getafe, Krasnodar|
|?D||tbc||?tbc||Sporting CP (Q), LASK (Q)?|
|?F||?tbc||?tbc||?Arsenal, Eintracht Frankfurt, Standard Liege|
|?G||tbc?||tbc?||?Rangers, Porto, Young Boys|
|?H||Espanyol?||tbc?||Ludogorets Razgread, Ferencvaros?|
|?I||?tbc||tbc?||Gent (Q), Wolfsburg (Q)?|
|?J||tbc?||tbc?||?Borussia Monchengladbach, Roma, Istanbul Basaksehir|
|?K||tbc?||tbc?||Braga (Q), Wolves? (Q)|
||?tbc||tbc||Man? Utd (Q), AZ Alkmaar (Q)|
Seeded from Champions League:
Unseeded from Champions League:
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