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Three reasons Manchester United should fancy themselves as favourites for the Europa League

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Manchester United last night continued their Europa League campaign with a commanding 3-0 victory in the 1st leg of their last-32 tie against AS Saint-Etienne. Currently fighting on all fronts for trophies, and involved in a tight battle to secure a top-four position in the Premier League, the secondary European competition could be seen as a distraction.

Yet, considering the real possibility of finishing 5th or 6th in the league, despite an impressive unbeaten run, success in the Europa League could be United’s best means of securing Champions League football next season. Here are three reasons why they can win it…

They take it seriously

Despite Jose Mourinho’s repeated suggestion that the competition is bad for his side and they don’t want to be in it, as reported by the Telegraph as early as September, the Portuguese boss has continued to select strong sides.

For yesterday’s 1st leg, 3-0 victory over Saint-Etienne, Mourinho only made two changes. Sergio Romero replaced David De Gea in goal – as he has for all European and FA Cup ties – and Marouane Fellaini came in for Henrik Mkhitaryan.

In more recent complaints about fixture congestion, caused by Manchester United’s progression in three different cups, Jose has pledged to approach the games to win, as stated in the Independent.

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Furthermore, the Times have this morning described how Mourinho ‘berated his players’ at half time last night, for showing complacency in their performance and being too relaxed in their approach to the game.

If Jose continues this approach, even when entering second legs with a considerable advantage, the Red Devils stand a great chance of winning the Europa League and securing automatic Champions League qualification by doing so.

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Joe is a suffering Blackpool fan. Having banned himself from matches in protest at England's worst club owners; he now watches any other game, often writing about them here for The Boot Room.

Europa League

Everton’s 4-1 defeat to Southampton adds to growing problems at Goodison Park

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Everton’s 4-1 defeat to Southampton this Sunday left them just two points above the relegation zone in a season that is going from bad to worse for the Toffees. The four goals conceded by David Unsworth’s side meant they have now let in 28 goals from just 13 matches.

Although Gylfi Sigurdsson’s long range strike was a positive for Everton, there was little else to write home about in a game that Southampton dominated.

It has been well documented that the Toffees’ summer recruitment has been a big reason behind their lack of success, with insufficient signings in key areas. One of those areas was highlighted profoundly on Sunday, with Leighton Baines going off with a knee injury in the first half.

Everton did not have another natural left-back in the match-day squad, so centre back Ashley Williams was brought on to replace the Englishman, with Aaron Lennon shifted into a wing-back role.

Lennon is not a natural in that position and is far more effective further forward and, somewhat predictably, two Southampton goals originated from his side.

Although this defeat comes as a fresh blow to Unsworth, it is the managerial uncertainty surrounding the club that is causing Everton major issues.

Ronald Koeman was sacked by chairman Farhad Mohsiri nearly five weeks ago now, and the club still seem no closer to appointing his successor.

Martin O’Neill was touted as the leading favourite for the vacany earlier this week, but whether he would be tempted into returning to club football after a stint with Republic of Ireland remains to be seen.

Marco Silva has also been approached, with Everton rumoured to be willing to pay £20 million in compensation to prize him away from Watford, according to the Hertfordshire Mercury.

Nonetheless, the Hornets have firmly stated that they will not allow their manager to take the reins at Goodison Park.

Unsworth was put under more pressure on Thursday, with Everton losing 5-1 to Italian side Atalanta, their heaviest home loss in Europe.

It is difficult to blame the former Sheffield United defender for most of his side’s troubles currently, with Everton’s players clearly shot of confidence.

He has made some major changes to the club’s personnel, switching from the winger-less system that Koeman employed, while bringing Aaron Lennon, Kevin Mirallas and Sandro Ramirez back to the first team.

He has also given promising full-back Jonjoe Kenny a run in the team ahead of the under-performing Cuco Martina.

It can also be argued that Everton are missing the experience and quality of long-term absentees Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley and Yannick Bolasie – three players who would surely be some of the first names on the team sheet at Goodison Park.

However, all of the players above were injured during the summer, a window in which Everton spent nearly £200 million on players.

Gylfi Sigurdsson has shown glimpses of his quality, scoring an excellent goal against Southampton, and Jordan Pickford has performed as well as could be expected, but many other Everton signings have taken time to settle into the side.

Davy Klaassen, signed from Ajax for £23.6 million, and Martina did not make it into the match day squad against Southampton. Meanwhile, Sandro had struggled until his goal against Atalanta on Thursday.

Wayne Rooney, who is the Toffees’ 2nd top scorer, has even been dropped to the bench in recent weeks.

Overall, Everton desperately need a managerial appointment to bring stability and confidence to a squad that is currently sliding towards the Premier League relegation zone.

Although Toffees fans are against the appointment, Sam Allardyce could provide the self-belief necessary to steer the club clear of the drop.

He is renowned as a specialist in helping teams survive, but it is worth remembering the success he had in charge of Bolton, getting to the last 16 of the 2005/06 UEFA Cup and coming within one place of qualifying for the Champions League during his final season in charge of the Trotters.

Regardless of who does take over at Goodison, the key for Everton is getting a manager into the club ahead of January and a transfer window that could be crucial in defining the club’s season.

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Arsenal

Arsenal’s Europa League group – who are their opponents?

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Arsenal

For the first time in over two decades – and for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s tenure in north London – Arsenal will be playing their European football on Thursday nights in the Europa League.

Failure to finish in the Premier League top-four has left the Gunners fighting it out in second-tier competition, yet few will bet against them emulating rivals Manchester United and going all the way.

A favourable draw has merely compounded their position as favourites, with Wenger’s men pitted in Group H against BATE Borisov, German outfit FC Koln and Serbian side Red Star Belgrade.

To save you from having to Google their opponents – a la Tottenham’s Danny RoseThe Boot Room has taken a look at the three teams that stand between Arsenal and a spot in the Europa League knockout stage.

BATE Borisov

Perhaps the toughest side that Arsenal will face during the group stages, BATE Borisov have Champions League pedigree and last featured in 2015/16, facing then reigning champions Barcelona.

On that occasion they held a good account for themselves, missing out on the knock-out stages by a single point after beating Italian side Roma and earning a point against Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen.

On a domestic level they have dominated the Belarus league in recent times – winning the previous eleven titles – although they are struggling this season, sitting in third place after 19 matches, to date.

A Champions League qualifier defeat to Slavia Prague of the Czech Republic over two legs will hardly leave Wenger – or Arsenal fans – quaking in their boots when they meet in the group stages.

FC Koln

The Bundesliga side may be embarking on European football for the first time since the 1992/93 season but they certainly have previous in this competition, ending runners-up in 1985/86 edition.

On their day they can be a dangerous side – last season they held Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to away draws in the league – and they will look to stifle Arsenal’s attacking style of play.

But with their main-man Anthony Modeste, who scored 25 goals in the Bundesliga, leaving for a lucrative deal in the Chinese Super League the Germans shouldn’t prove to be much of an obstacle.

Red Star Belgrade

Completing the line-up for Arsenal’s group is Serbian outfit Red Star Belgrade, a side that have reached the group stage of European competition for the first time since the UEFA Cup in 2007/08.

To make it to here they’ve already beaten Floriana of Malta, Irtysh Pavlador of Kazakhstan, Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic and Russia’s Kuban Krasnodar so they’re already well-versed this year.

Red Star – the lesser known side of Serbia’s capital alongside Partizan Belgrade – were narrowly pipped to their domestic title last year by their rivals but, on their day at home, they’re a tough side.

The two sides have actually met in Europe before, way back in 1978 when the north London side actually lost 2-1 in the last-16 of the UEFA Cup, and revenge will no doubt be on the cards this year.

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Europa League

Three things learnt as Everton progressed past MFK Ruzomberok in the Europa League

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Everton

Ronald Koeman’s new-look Everton side comfortably saw off Slovakian minnows MFK Ruzomberok on Thursday evening to secure their spot in the Europa League play-off round.

In a match that mirrored the slow tempo of the first-leg, both teams failed to register an attempt on target in the first-half and it was the home side that went closest with a free header at the near post.

Morgan Schneiderlin had Everton’s best chance prior to the goal, heading wide from Sandro Ramirez’s corner, but it was substitute Dominic Calvert-Lewin who ensured the Toffees’ safe progress into the next round after slotting neatly into the far corner just 11 minutes after coming on.

The draw for the play-off round takes place on Friday afternoon, with the winner advancing to the Europa League group stage, and the ties will take place consecutively on August 17 and August 24.

The Boot Room takes a look at three things we learnt from an easy European night for Everton…

Tempo of play needs to improve

From their laboured victory over MFK Ruzomberok at Goodison Park last week it was clear to see that there was a lack of pace and tempo in Everton’s play, and this didn’t improve last night either.

Despite Koeman’s claims pre-match that his side would play with attacking intent their second-leg encounter was arguably even more tedious than the first, barely testing their goalkeeper all match.

And it was evident to see that there’s a lack of pace in the Toffees’ side, missing the attacking player that will drive at defenders with intent and cause problems, and it just showed how desperate they are for Yannick Bolasie to return from his lengthy injury lay-off and add another attacking dimension.

The arrival of Calvert-Lewin from the bench significantly upped the tempo – and it’s no surprise that he made the telling impact on the night – but there’s work to be done before the new season begins.

Tom Davies at wing-back doesn’t work

Ronald Koeman is understandably still going through an experimental stage with his squad after his summer spending spree, but utilising young Tom Davies as a wing-back is one of his weirder try-outs.

The void of Seamus Coleman is huge heading into the new season, and although new signing Cuco Martina didn’t particularly impress during the first-leg it doesn’t seem that Davies is the correct alternative to the role, as he is far more effective at Everton as a marauding box-to-box midfielder.

The 18-year-old was perhaps one of Everton’s better players on the night but, up against Premier League standard opposition, he may struggle to be potent in attack and be caught out at the back.

And at such a young age he needs all of the education he needs in one position to develop his potential as a future England international player, so Koeman would be wise to end this experiment.

Rooney and Sandro Ramirez could be a formidable partnership

Heading in to the match last night Everton’s chosen strike duo for the evening may be forgiven for thinking it would have been a competition for who could score the most goals, and although it didn’t transpire into a goal-fest there were signs that Rooney and Sandro are building chemistry.

Especially during the first-half the duo were constantly on the look-out for each other, with the former Manchester United man in particular pulling on some intricate flicks and passes at times.

Sandro’s ability to stretch the defensive line with his runs to the edge of the box could prove to be incredibly useful in the Premier League, opening up space for midfield runners through the middle.

It was by no means vintage Everton, and the new signings will want to open their accounts sooner rather than later, but Koeman’s side are still in pre-season mode – the real test begins next Saturday.

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