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Midtjylland, Manchester United's last-32 rivals

Enjoying their longest European season, Midtjylland are preparing for the most high-profile game in their short history, the round of 32 opener against Manchester United.

Midtjylland eliminated Southampton in the UEFA Europa League play-offs
Midtjylland eliminated Southampton in the UEFA Europa League play-offs ©Getty Images

Founded in 1999 as a merger between some-time top division sides Ikast and Herning Fremad, Midtjylland were named in honour of their local region – Central Jutland.

Midtjylland were initially based in Ikast, but where the new team would play long-term was a vexed issue; 15km separates Ikast from Herning, and while the former is the smaller town, Ikast fans maintained that their team – three-time Danish Cup finalists – had the stronger footballing heritage. A compromise plan of building the new stadium between the two towns was proposed, but soon abandoned; their stadium opened in Herning in 2004.

Entering Europe
Ikast competed in Europe in three seasons in the early 1990s but never won a tie. Midtjylland – nicknamed the Black Wolves from the start – qualified for Europe after their first full season in the Superliga and won their maiden UEFA Cup tie, against Northern Ireland's Glentoran, before losing to Sporting CP in the first round proper.

Their ninth season in Europe, this has been their best so far, Midtjylland's 12 2015/16 fixtures representing a significant proportion of their 44 UEFA games to date. This is also their first campaign as Danish champions.

Midtjylland coach Jess Thorup
Midtjylland coach Jess Thorup©Getty Images

Surprise change
Shortly after Midtjylland won the 2014/15 title, coach Glen Riddersholm unexpectedly stepped down, citing personal issues. It was a significant change given the work he had overseen since he took charge in 2011, with Midtjylland having fashioned their style and playing squad on statistical analysis.

His replacement was Jess Thorup, who had led Denmark to the semi-finals of the 2015 UEFA European Under-21 Championship in the Czech Republic. That experience with the U21s helped give him a hard edge with his charges at Midtjylland. "Being a coach at a major championship means you have to sack 12 players before each game," he explained. "You have 23 players in your squad and you can only send 11 of them on from the start, so you need to axe and disappoint 12 of them."

Midtjylland's local star Pione Sisto
Midtjylland's local star Pione Sisto©AFP/Getty Images

Local talent
Thorup was well acquainted with members of Midtjylland's young squad from his time as Denmark U21 boss. He can no longer call on central defender Erik Sviatchenko following his move to Celtic, but attacking midfielder Pione Sisto remains in place.

Born in Uganda but raised in a Herning suburb after his parents fled to avoid the civil war, the 20-year-old is on the radar of many top European clubs. "I see myself as a local boy because I have lived nearly all my life here, but that does not mean I cannot see myself somewhere else," he said. "I know where I am best – one against one and when I approach the opposition's goal, where I can make my sharp passes or shoot."

Biggest match yet
Drawing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League round of 32 has given Midtjylland their biggest test yet – and has made a dream come true for their Finland midfielder Tim Sparv, a lifelong fan of the Red Devils.

"Miracles have happened before and we will probably need one again," said Thorup as he sized up his chances of causing an upset. "However, we will not just lie back. We deserved to qualify for the round of 32 and we aim to prove that to ourselves and to our opponents."

Manchester United visit Midtjylland's Arena Herning on 18 February
Manchester United visit Midtjylland's Arena Herning on 18 February©Getty Images