London (AFP) – Manchester United and AC Milan meet in the Europa League last 16 on Thursday in a battle of European royalty, with both clubs showing signs of revival.
With 10 Champions League titles between them, United and Milan were once feared across Europe for their swashbuckling play and financial muscle.
But both clubs have lost their lustre in recent years, making their first meeting since 2010 an intriguing affair.
In a sign of the drop in standards at Old Trafford and the San Siro, the 11th encounter between two of the world’s most historic teams will be their first outside the Champions League knockout stages.
United, 20-time English champions, have not won the Premier League since Alex Ferguson’s last season in charge in 2013.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are unlikely to end that drought this season as they trail leaders Manchester City by 11 points with 10 games left.
Sunday’s impressive 2-0 win at City was a sign United are at least heading in the right direction at last after losing their way under several of Ferguson’s successors.
Calling for United to build on that success, Solskjaer praised his side’s energy levels.
“We are going to do everything we can to keep the performance levels up every day,” he said.
“I feel we are a better team to 12, 16, 18 months ago. We have improved massively. We are more robust, resilient and there is more personality in the team. That is what I like.”
The most recent of Milan’s 18 Serie A titles came in 2011, with a sixth-place finish last term earning a return to Europe after a one-season absence.
That was a small step in the right direction for Milan, who have not played in the Champions League since 2014.
– Ibrahimovic return? –
Milan’s gradual improvement under boss Stefano Pioli has taken them to second in Serie A this term.
The seven-time European champions are six points behind leaders Inter Milan — a 3-0 defeat against their city rivals in February was a significant blow to their title aspirations.
Trying to restore their domestic dominance is the first goal for United and Milan on a long journey they hope will eventually lead them back to the Champions League summit as well.
Winning the Europa League would be another welcome sign of better days to come.
Milan have never reached the final of the competition but their striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a United player when the English giants won the Europa League in 2017.
Ibrahimovic has missed Milan’s past two games due to a muscle injury, but Pioli hopes the 39-year-old Swede will be fit for an Old Trafford return.
“He is better… he will have another examination to see how his recovery is going, we hope he can recover by Thursday,” Pioli said.
United will face another familiar face in full-back Diogo Dalot, who is on loan at Milan, with UEFA rules allowing players to face their parent clubs.
Old Trafford holds happy memories for Milan, who beat Juventus there in the 2003 Champions League final, but their record in England against English hosts shows just one win in 17 matches.
While United’s Milan showdown is the tie of the round, there are several teams in action elsewhere who also harbour genuine hopes of winning the tournament.
Tottenham, in a rich vein of form since Gareth Bale’s revival, host Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb, while Roma meet Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk.
Arsenal face Olympiakos at the same venue where they came from behind to beat Benfica in the previous round — the last-32 second-leg was staged in Greece due to coronavirus concerns.
Fresh from winning the Scottish title for the first time since 2011, Steven Gerrard’s Rangers travel to Slavia Prague and four-time European champions Ajax host Switzerland’s Young Boys.
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