Who do Manchester United want to face in the Champions League last-16?
The Red Devils headed into the final group game knowing they had already guaranteed top spot, meaning their meeting with Young Boys was irrelevant for the hosts.
It led to an understrength team selection from Ralf Rangnick, who also replaced his goalkeepers midway through the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
But the culmination of Wednesday’s games means United know the identity of the six sides they could be paired with in the knockout stages, and we’ve picked which opponents could represent the Red Devils’ best and worst chances of making it to the quarter-finals.
The Red Devils have faced PSG in each of the last two Champions League campaigns, having never met prior to that. It’s two wins apiece for the sides in head-to-head encounters and United famously eliminated them from the competition in 2019. This season, PSG finished second in a group behind Manchester City and haven’t always excelled in Europe, dropping points in three of their six games. However, they have started the domestic campaign superbly and are already 11 points clear at the Ligue 1 summit. With Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in their ranks they’re always an offensive threat, if less convincing defensively.
The Spanish side are a regular in the last-16 of the competition, although have only made it beyond that stage in one of the last four seasons. They also struggled to progress in a group Liverpool dominated, and are 10 points off city rivals Real Madrid in La Liga. However, a squad that contains Antoine Griezmann, Joao Felix and Luis Suarez will always be dangerous. This would certainly be one of the tougher opponents United could face, although Diego Simeone’s men aren’t at the same level they were a few years ago. A meeting with Atletico could also see Kieran Trippier face the side he’s been continuously linked with a move to in recent years.
A tie that would see stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes return to their former club, Sporting are enjoying a good season. They’ve dropped points in just two league games to date this term and finished above Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League group. The side from the Portuguese capital have never made it beyond the first knockout stage since the tournament’s rebranding in 1992 and haven’t played United since 2007. A meeting with Sporting would also see the Red Devils come up against Ruben Amorim, a manager who has been linked with taking over at Old Trafford from next season.
The Italian champions are second at present in Serie A and have lost just once in the league this season. A win against Real Madrid in their final group game would have seen Inter finish top and the Spaniards in second, however they lost 2-0. Simone Inzaghi’s side contains former Red Devils Alexis Sanchez and Matteo Darmian and is packed with quality players such as Samir Handanovic, Lautaro Martinez and Ivan Perisic. The three-time European champions were once serial participants in the latter stages of the Champions League, but haven’t made it beyond the last-16 since 2011.
The Portuguese club finished above Barcelona to progress to the last-16, and have rich European history against United after meeting them in the 1968 European Cup final. United have won eight of their 11 meetings with Benfica, losing just once, while they last met when Jose Mourinho was in charge at Old Trafford, with the Premier League side winning both group-stage encounters. Benfica’s form in the Champions League hasn’t been superb in 2021/22 and they only won two group games - one against Dynamo Kiev and the other when facing a 10-man Barcelona. Benfica currently trail Primera Liga leaders Porto by four points, although the Eagles have only dropped points in three league games this term.
A side who represent something of an unknown for most United supporters, although one man who certainly knows the Austrian side well is Rangnick, after his time working with the Red Bull franchise. Salzburg have qualified for the knockout stages for the first time in their history, and their roster isn’t made up of well-known international superstars. That’s not to say they wouldn’t represent a difficult challenge, and the Red Bulls finished above Sevilla and Wolfsburg to make it to the last-16. They’re also flying domestically, and are 12 points clear at the summit of the Austrian top flight. Salzburg have also never faced United before in a European competition.
Who do United want?
PSG certainly represent the toughest opponent in the next round, although they looked so disjointed in the recent loss to City. However, the Parisians have real pedigree in the competition now, and made it to the final only two seasons ago.
Inter and Atletico would pose difficult yet not impossible challenges for United, although there are certainty easier ties for the Red Devils, than the Spanish or Italian champions.
The Portuguese double act of Sporting and Benfica are much more attract opponents for Rangnick in the knockout stages. Although, given their lack of household names or European experience, Salzburg represent United’s best chance of making it through to the quarter-finals.