Man Utd, Southamption eye Euro progress

With Fenerbahce meeting winless Group A tailender Zorya Luhansk in the other game, United needs to go all out for the win against Dutch teaam Feyenoord if it is to keep its Europa League campaign on the rails.

Jose Mourinho

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 hosts Feyenoord.   -  Reuters

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, which is seeking to reach the last 32 on Thursday.

United is one of five former European champions playing in what, compared with the Champions League, it views as a bridesmaid's competition.

A fifth-place finish in the English Premier League kept the team 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 champion 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 hosts Feyenoord.

United stands a point behind the Dutch and Fenerbahce, which beat the English team in its 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, which 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 on Tuesday suggested Mourinho would offer the Feyenoord test as a springboard for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a bit-part player since his summer move from Dortmund. "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 tailender Zorya Luhansk in the other game, United needs to go all out for the win if it is to keep its campaign on the rails.

Southampton meets Sparta Prague

Other English interest centres on Southampton which, following its success over Inter Milan, meets surprise group leaders Sparta Prague.

The Saints beat the Czechs 3-0 earlier in the tournament but since then the latter has snatched three wins on the trot. A win will see Prague qualify — but it 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 the team languishes in ninth.

However, a win over Israel's Hapoel Beer Sheva, currently a point above it, would close the gap on Southampton to a single point — if the Saints loses.

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

Schalke v Nice

Schalke meets a Nice side which 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 it in contention. The Cote d'Azur side is 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 against Czech outfit Slovan Liberec or else will hope PAOK Salonika of Greece drops points against leader Fiorentina.

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

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