It was written that for the first season of these revamped Europa League knockout rounds -- there's now a playoff round between teams that finished third in their Champions League groups and teams that finished second in their Europa League groups -- there would be a huge tie. And the draw didn't disappoint!
Barcelona and Manchester United, two European giants chasing a way back to the top, will face each other for a place in the last 16. It means that one of the two managers, Erik ten Hag and Xavi, will be out of Europe very early, which will be another embarrassment and another thing for the club to deal with.
On paper, Barcelona are slightly ahead in their development and process, but United can also beat them. It will be a tactical battle, too; beyond it marking Cristiano Ronaldo's return to the Camp Nou -- as well as for Raphael Varane and Casemiro -- it will be the Frenkie De Jong derby. It could be Sergio Busquets' last-ever European action, too, which amounts to a potentially fascinating tie.
As Xavi put it on Monday, "The draw has given us the most difficult opponent once again, but we will look forward to it and we will compete ... It's the worst draw we could have got. Once again. Sometimes it's a plus to play against the best sides. Maybe it will bring the best out of us here and at Old Trafford. It's a challenge."
The rest is not as eye-catching by comparison, although there are still some compelling matchups. Three in particular have the feel of Champions League ties:
- Bayer Leverkusen vs. Monaco, or the Kevin Volland derby given he spent four seasons scoring goals in the Bundesliga before joining the Ligue 1 club in 2020. Monaco and Philippe Clement are hitting form and will hope to still be in top shape in February in order to give Xabi Alonso's side a tough test.
Alonso, a legend as a player and now enjoying his first senior coaching job, still lacks experience and has to learn quickly. If not, the team from the principality could prove too tricky to overcome. Wissam Ben Yedder (nine goals) and Breel Embolo lead from the front for Monaco, while Alex Nubel has played every minute between the posts.
- Sevilla vs. PSV Eindhoven is going to be great, too. Jorge Sampaoli is trying to revive Sevilla's season, but he has yet to find the right formula. However, the Europa League is their competition, having won four of the past 10 editions.
While Sevilla are struggling, PSV are flying. They beat Arsenal in the group stage even if they still finished second behind the Gunners in the end. Ruud Van Nistelrooy is building a young team with great potential and if Cody Gakpo is still in their squad by the time the first leg rolls around, they will be my favourites to qualify.
RB Salzburg vs. Roma is really the tale of two managers, the apprentice against the master: Mathias Jassle vs. José Mourinho. At 34, Jaissle has a great future ahead of him and his young Salzburg team matched up well with Chelsea and Milan in their Champions League group, drawing against both. At 59, Mourinho wants to add the Europa League to his trophy cabinet after winning the Europa Conference League last season, but he'll have to rally the Giallorossi to their best form given inconsistent performances in Serie A so far this campaign.
Otherwise, Juventus have been arguably the luckiest side in the draw, with Nantes coming their way. The French Cup winners last season are very much among the minnows left in the competition and they wanted the biggest opponent possible -- consider that wish granted! The players celebrated when they drew Juve, and they will have nothing to lose. For the Old Lady, the biggest pressure is that they simply can't afford to lose, as it would be a proper humiliation if they did.
Ajax vs. Union Berlin is the clash of two extremes, putting opposing styles head-to-head in an intriguing battle. The Dutch side will have a lot of the ball, with the Bundesliga side all too happy to play on the counter. Ajax are favourites, undoubtedly, but Union keep defying the odds. Elsewhere, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Rennes will be an attacking affair, though I believe the French side are the better team here. Finally, Sporting will go into their games against Midtjylland as the favourites too.
Full Europa League playoff draw
Games to be played Feb. 16 and Feb. 23
Barcelona vs. Manchester United
Juventus vs. Nantes
Sporting CP vs. Midtjylland
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Rennes
Ajax vs. Union Berlin
Bayer Leverkusen vs. AS Monaco
Sevilla vs. PSV Eindhoven
FC Salzburg vs. AS Roma