Manchester United may be squirming at the thought of spending Thursday nights on Channel Five but they will probably have to wait until next week before finding out whether they will suffer the even greater indignity of being shunted into a Tuesday afternoon slot.
In the wake of Wednesday night’s 2-1 defeat to Basle, which left Sir Alex Ferguson’s men in third spot in a weak-looking Group C, they already knew a place in the Europa League was their post-Christmas fate.
However, in confirming both they and Manchester City would be seeded for next Friday’s last-32 draw, UEFA were creating a clash between the two clubs.
Competition regulations prevent any teams within a 31-mile radius of each other playing on the same day. Effectively, this means either United or City will have to move from Thursday night or have their fixture reversed, thus losing the ‘advantage’ of a home second leg.
The complication over kick-offs arises because UEFA are reluctant to sanction any non-Champions League game for the same time as matches in their top club competition.
As two last-16 first-leg ties will be scheduled for both Tuesday, February 21 and Wednesday 22 in the week when those Europa League second-leg encounters are scheduled, it means any switched game would probably have to take place earlier in the evening even if the Premier League’s remaining two representatives, Arsenal and Chelsea, were not in action.
It is the same fate that befell Everton two years ago when they had a clash with Liverpool and were eventually ordered to play Sporting Lisbon on the Tuesday, with a 5.45pm kick-off.
However, as that was a first-leg game and both City and United should be playing second-leg matches, with the potential for extra-time and penalties, UEFA may demand an earlier start time to preserve the Champions League’s exclusivity.
At the time, Toffees manager David Moyes complained there was no scope for merely switching the fixture around, although this is an option open to the competitions’ committee when it makes its decision ahead of next Friday’s draw.
The prospect of United having to play at such a time due to games being played in different parts of the continent just heaps even more humiliation on to what Patrice Evra has already conceded is an “embarrassing” situation.
UEFA have also confirmed that clubs from the same country will be able to meet in the last 16, raising the prospect of both Manchester sides being drawn together.
Stoke and Fulham, who seem set to progress through the more conventional route, will also note the possibility of inflicting additional misery on a big-name Premier League foe who suddenly find themselves scrambling about with Europe’s lesser lights. The precise list of clubs United and City could be paired with will not be known until the final round of Europa League group matches are concluded next Wednesday and Thursday.
Already though, Ajax, last season’s winners Porto, Trabzonspor and Plzen of the Czech Republic have been confirmed as non-seeds.
But it is the fear of drawing the likes of Maccabi Haifa and Russian duo Rubin Kazan and Lokomotiv Moscow that will perturb Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini the most given the extensive travelling that would involve.
Whilst it could hardly be described as a silver lining, given the domestic matches immediately after the first-leg tussles on February 16 will be in the FA Cup fifth round, it is certain one manager has plenty of time to get the tiredness out of his players’ legs before they are required for duty again in the second leg.