Manchester United will break new ground tonight, as the club travels to north-western Spain to face Celta Vigo in their very first Europa League semi-final.
Indeed, both clubs will be playing in their first semi-final of Europe’s second tier competition in a night of firsts at Balaidos in Vigo. It’s not virgin ground for everyone, though: United boss Jose Mourinho has been here before.
In 2002, FC Porto finished in their lowest league position for 20 years, while Portuguese minnows UD Leiria finished in fifth, their best ever season. So Porto did what you’d expect them to do: they sacked their manager and replaced him with Leiria’s manager, a young Jose Mourinho.
The rest is history, but the history is close to repeating: Mourinho’s first season at Porto was a rebuilding job. Tasked with restoring the former glories of a club that had been at the peak of European football just over a decade previously, he made the most of the hand he’d been dealt: in his first season, he embraced the club’s UEFA Cup position, winning the trophy and delivering the Portuguese Cup and the league title, too. The next season, he went on to even greater things, winning the Champions League and another league title before moving to England.
But this season, Mourinho finds himself in need of the same magic. He has inherited another side who, just under a decade ago, were at the peak of Europe, but who, over the last few seasons, have fallen to their lowest positions since the inception of the Premier League. Another rebuilding job was necessary this time, as was another unwanted season in the Europa League.
For opposite reasons, though, neither club has the same experience.
For Celta, this is the first time in their history that they have reached any European semi-final. They have been to three Spanish Cup finals in their history, losing every time, but for the last two years in a row, they have reached the semis. Last season, they lost to Sevilla. and this season to Alaves – they are becoming accustomed to semi-finals, but they haven’t won one since 2001, when they beat Barcelona before losing to Real Zaragoza in the final. Celta’s goalscorer at the Camp Nou in the second leg was Eduardo Berizzo – now their manager.
For United, it’s a different route to the same stage – the club is no stranger to European semi-finals, but never in the UEFA Cup or Europa League, a competition that has always been beneath them.
The second leg is at home for United, just as it has been in the last two rounds, and you get the feeling that they’d rather not leave the tie quite so in the balance this time around. The last two times, they have drawn the away leg only to sneak through by the odd goal in the home leg.
It won’t be quite that easy, though. Former Celta player Nolito has already been on the winning side for a team in sky blue at Old Trafford this season, whilst former Manchester City youngster John Guidetti has already fired verbal shots across the boughs, claiming that Celta will do everything they can to keep Manchester blue. A new and improved Iago Aspas also has experience of beating Manchester United twice, appearing in games both at Anfield and Old Trafford, as Liverpool did the double over their north-west rivals in 2013/14.
United, meanwhile, will be missing Zlatan Ibrahimovic – who has scored against Celta in European competition before – whilst Celta will be missing former United striker Giuseppe Rossi. Both players are out with knee ligament injuries.
This may be new territory for both clubs, then, but there are certainly familiar storylines at play. United will be hoping history repeats itself as Jose Mourinho seals his first season in charge with a Europa League title and Celta bow out in the semi-finals yet again.