Ahead of Thursday’s Europa League semifinal second legs, KweséESPN run through the African players still standing in the competition.
Manchester United vs. Celta Vigo (First Leg: 1-0)
Jose Mourinho has made no secret of the fact that he’s channelling his resources entirely into the Europa League this season as United seek a route into the Champions League.
Their unconvincing league form has been compounded by the manager’s decision to forsake the top flight, with a shuffled XI falling 2-0 to Arsenal at the weekend in a loss that also fuels the Gunners’ own hopes of overhauling their top four rivals.
As such, United need Europa League success as they look to re-establish themselves among the continental elite, and Mourinho will surely love to clinch silverware — and specifically one of the few honours that the Red Devils haven’t yet won — in his maiden season.
Despite the manager’s squawks about a lack of central defensive cover, he had the luxury of replacing two international stoppers with two more internationals at the weekend, with Ivory Coast’s Eric Bailly and Dutchman Daley Blind dropped for England duo Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
Bailly overcame injury concerns to feature in the first leg, and having another week of recovery under his belt, he will start — likely alongside Blind — on Thursday.
Anglo-Congolese wonderkid Axel Tuanzebe was handed his full United debut in the defeat by Arsenal at the weekend, featuring on the right side of Mourinho’s makeshift defence, but don’t expect him to be retained in midweek.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah is absent with injury, having featured increasingly in the manager’s plans in recent weeks and months.
For Celta, keep an eye on Uganda-born wideman Pione Sisto. The Danish international has scored two in the Europa League so far this season, and will be primed to exploit any space that Antonio Valencia leaves behind him.
Olympique Lyonnais vs. Ajax Amsterdam (First Leg: 1-4)
The outstanding Bertrand Traore delivered one of the finest displays of his career in the first leg, scoring twice and contributing an assist as Ajax put OL to the sword.
A 4-1 first-leg triumph puts the Dutch side firmly in the driving seat for a spot in the final, and if Traore delivers a performance approaching the quality of last week, then it’s surely impossible to see Lyon progress.
Traore has been consistently effective for the Dutch giants in the Eredivisie this season — scoring nine goals — and finding the net a further four times in Europe.
These are the kind of performances that are sure to alert parent club Chelsea, and should Traore guide Ajax all the way to the Europa League title, then it will be fascinating to see whether Antonio Conte is tempted to hand him a role in the Blues’ squad next season.
Traore’s excellent showings have arguably taken some of the gloss off an outstanding season for Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech, who contributed two assists in the first leg.
The 24-year-old may have missed out on a spot at the Nations Cup, but with 11 assists and seven goals in the Dutch top flight this season, he’s proving himself to be a truly menacing midfield presence. He’s particularly effective on the left side of Ajax’s midfield in their 4-3-3 formation.
Lyon, out of the running for the Champions League in Ligue 1, will throw everything into Thursday’s clash, but they may have to do so without frontmen Memphis Depay and Alexandre Lacazette.
Ivory Coast wideman Maxwel Cornet will likely start on the right, charged with troubling the visiting defence, while Rachid Ghezzal could also feature.
Central defenders Nicolas Nkoulou and Mouctar Diakhaby were both embarrassed in the first leg, with Jeremy Morel faring little better on the left side, and if OL push forward in search of redemption, they may be exposed again.
Ed Dove is the Soccer Editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @EddyDove.