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What to look out for in the UEFA Europa League knockout round play-offs

A high-profile reunion for two European juggernauts, the quest for an upset and a sentimental return – we pick out the knockout round play-off storylines.

Nantes' Igniatius Ganago, Manchester United's Marcus Rashford and PSV Eindhoven forward Luuk de Jong
Nantes' Igniatius Ganago, Manchester United's Marcus Rashford and PSV Eindhoven forward Luuk de Jong Getty Images

The 2022/23 UEFA Europa League returns with eight knockout round play-off ties across two weeks in February.

In this piece presented by Enterprise, we pick out some key talking points ahead of the first fixtures of the new year.

Knockout round play-off fixtures: 16 & 23 February
Barcelona vs Manchester United
Juventus vs Nantes
Sporting CP vs Midtjylland
Shakhtar Donetsk vs Rennes
Ajax vs Union Berlin
Bayer Leverkusen vs Monaco
Sevilla vs PSV Eindhoven
Salzburg vs Roma

What to look out for

Barça and United renew rivalry

2011 final highlights: Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United

Barcelona and Manchester United's 13 previous meetings have tended to be momentous, including victories for the Spanish side in the 2009 and 2011 UEFA Champions League finals and, in the last match between the clubs outside of that competition, a 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup final triumph for United featuring goals from former Barça striker Mark Hughes in their 2-1 win.

Blaugrana coach Xavi Hernández started both those Champions League finals and lost only one of his six appearances in this fixture for the club, although that came in a 2007/08 semi-final when United went on to lift the trophy.

Barça cheekily shared a "random clip" on social media showing Lionel Messi scoring a superb long-range strike against United in the 2011 final, and Xavi believes his current crop can rise to the occasion: "It's a massive challenge for us and our players will probably be more motivated against a strong team."

Nantes aim to stun three-time winners

Europa League play-off round: Meet the teams

There were scenes of unbridled joy as Nantes celebrated in their dressing room following the late 2-0 win at Olympiacos that clinched second place in Group G and sealed their berth in the play-offs.

Now the team whose coefficient ranking of 117th was the lowest in the draw will bid to shock opponents who stood 108 places above them when this reprise of their 1995/96 Champions League semi-final was scheduled – not to mention on a run of four straight Serie A wins without conceding a goal.

"We're going to play against a football institution," enthused Nantes managing director Franck Kita immediately after the ceremony, vowing that the relegation-battling Ligue 1 club will approach each game as if it were their last when they face the 36-time Italian champions.

"We know that we are going to play a top club – it's done, we're going to play without pressure and we're going to try to take pleasure from it. Let's be realistic, it's going to be a difficult tie, but we're going to give it our maximum."

Prolific PSV provide special setting for Sevilla

2006 final highlights: Sevilla 4-0 Middlesbrough

After a difficult start to the season, Sevilla will hope to find inspiration when they return to Eindhoven – the setting in May 2006 for the first of their six UEFA Cup/Europa League title triumphs. "Whenever we hear the name of the stadium, our hair stands on end because that's where our marriage with this competition began," said director of football Monchi, calling the Dutch city "emblematic" to supporters in Seville.

PSV are unlikely to be in sentimental mood. Appropriately for a team led by three-time Champions League top scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy, the 1977/78 UEFA Cup winners struck more goals than any other club in the group stage, finding the net 15 times as they recaptured the form that has taken them top of the Eredivisie while averaging more than three goals a game domestically.

Luuk de Jong, who registered twice to help Sevilla win the 2020 Europa League final before joining PSV at the start of the current season, called the draw "wonderful" and says he still follows his former side. He also warned his new team-mates that a solid first-leg result in Spain could be crucial against opponents he believes are in a false position just above the Liga relegation zone.

"They will be two special matches for me," said De Jong, adding that PSV can take encouragement from beating Feyenoord, Monaco, Arsenal and Ajax already this season. "I am very much looking forward to it."

Where is the 2023 UEFA Europa League final being played?

The 2022/23 Europa League season will conclude at Budapest's Puskás Aréna on 31 May 2023.

Officially opened in 2019, the 65,000+ capacity ground stands on the site of the old Hungarian national team stadium, which was also named in honour of former Honvéd and Real Madrid forward Ferenc Puskás. The venue is located in the Zugló district of the Hungarian capital.