Denis Irwin admitted the Europa League is not the European competition Manchester United were aiming for but that will not stop them trying to reach the final in Poland, no matter where their journey takes them.
United face taxing trips to Kazakhstan and Serbia, as well as a shorter journey to the Netherlands, between now and December after getting Astana, Partizan Belgrade and AZ Alkmaar in the draw for the Europa League group stages on Friday.
Irwin, who played 75 times in Europe during his 12-year career at Old Trafford, attended the ceremony in Monaco on behalf of United, who will probably feel they drew the shortest of straws among the three English teams in the competition, although Celtic and Rangers might say they have the hardest challenges among the British quintet in terms of quality.
Arsenal, who lost last season’s all-English Europa League final to Chelsea, were placed in group F with Eintracht Frankfurt, Standard Liege and Vitoria. Frankfurt lost to Chelsea in the semi-finals last season and finished seventh in the Bundesliga.
Wolves, having come through three rounds of qualifying to get here, were put in group K with Besiktas, third in the Turkish league last season, Braga and Slovan Bratislava. The prospect of a trip to Braga should excite Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo and the rest of their Portuguese contingent.
Celtic, in group E, face difficult trips to Lazio, Stade Rennais, who recently beat Paris Saint-Germain, and Cluj, the Romanian side that ended their Champions League campaign earlier this month. And Rangers’ group G opponents are Porto, Young Boys and Feyenoord, three teams with plenty of European know-how.
But no British side will clock up more air miles before Christmas than United, as Astana are 3,700 miles and five time zones away in Kazakhstan and Belgrade is a 3,000-mile round trip.
“It’s an interesting draw – we’ve not played Astana before and it’s a long way away,” Irwin said.
“So, logistically speaking, it’s not the easiest but we’ll have to take it on board. Belgrade is always a great place to play football and Alkmaar is only a short hop.
“But we’re in this competition to win it. People might think we’re in it for the sake of it but we’re in it to win it. We won it a couple of years ago and we’re looking forward to it. We’ve got a big squad and I’m sure the manager will utilise that.
“We would rather be in the Champions League, obviously, but we’ll be out to win this competition.”
As Irwin mentioned, United have not played Astana or Alkmaar before, but they lost to Partizan Belgrade in the semi-final of the 1966 European Cup with a team that included George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law.
What United fans would do for a trinity like that once more but the 53-year-old Irishman, who won a Champions League crown and seven Premier League titles with the club, believes they have just signed three real talents.
Asked what he thought of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s start to his first full campaign at the wheel, Irwin said: “This was his first pre-season with the club and he’s had a chance now to stamp his ideas on the way he wants Manchester United to play.
“There is a young, fresh look up front and he’s made three fantastic signings in Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James, who have hit the ground running.”
On how the club’s most high-profile star is performing, Irwin said: “Paul Pogba is a player we rely on with his ability to open up defences.
“He’s a World Cup-winner with France, he’s won plenty of Serie A titles with Juventus and he’s at a good age now. We need his experience with so many young players around him.”
Earlier on Friday, UEFA recognised one of the Premier League’s former stars, Eden Hazard, for his performances with Chelsea last season.
Now with Real Madrid, the Belgian was named Europa League player of the season, beating new teammate Luka Jovic, who played for Frankfurt last season, and old colleague Olivier Giroud.
UEFA’s director of competitions Giorgio Marchetti also took a moment before the draw began to send the governing body’s condolences to former Barca manager Luis Enrique on the tragic death of his nine-year-old daughter from cancer.
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