Europa League Preview | Granada vs Manchester United

On 21 May 2008, Manchester United were crowned Kings of Europe for the third time in their history, after beating Chelsea in a famous UEFA Champions League final in Moscow. John Terry slipped, Nicolas Anelka missed, and Edwin Van Der Sar saved, as the Red Devils conquered the continent and became, categorically, the best football team in the world.

Meanwhile, just three days earlier, a certain Spanish side had also just drawn a successful campaign to a close. 2,700 miles away, deep into the Andalusian mountains, a 1-0 win at Linares sealed a fifth-place finish for Granada. Improvement, in their quest to get out of Group 4 of Segunda División B.

Just 13 years ago, it seemed inconceivable that their paths would ever cross. One side European Champions, led by Sir Alex Ferguson and Cristiano Ronaldo. The other, as many clubs around them had shown, just one bad decision away from administration. Even two years ago, when Granada were languishing in Spain’s second division, the idea wouldn’t have been entertained.

Yet, this week, Manchester United and Granada will not only meet, but will meet as equals. Not for a friendly game, or a money-spinning, early-round cup draw; but as European quarter-finalists. It’s the stuff of dreams for Granada, who will probably still be pinching themselves when they take to the pitch alongside one of the biggest clubs in world football on Thursday, but they aren’t just along for the ride. They’ve performed miracles before, and, as far as Diego Martínez is concerned, the manager responsible for so many of them, there will be absolutely no reason that they can’t break the glass ceiling once again.

“We are ready for the challenge,” the Galician magician said, upon finding out his side would face Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men for their biggest, most daring trick yet. “Nobody expected us to qualify for the Europa League, never mind from the group stages. Yet, here we are. We believe in ourselves, and we’re going to show that to the world.”

Ever since Martínez took over in 2018, Granada have found themselves on an almost inexplicable upward trajectory. Inheriting a mid-table, second division side, with an already shoestring budget further squeezed by financial restrictions, the man from Vigo transformed Granada, almost out of nowhere, into promotion contenders. And, despite losing 12 players in the transfer window, and only spending €80,000 themselves, they would go on to finish second, conceding just 28 goals in 42 games. After just one season of Martínez magic, Granada were a club revitalised. Onto LaLiga they marched.

Even as they moved up to compete with the best the Spain had to offer, Granada were still only able to spend around €8 million. Yet, with the help of sporting director Fran Sánchez, Martínez led a remarkably shrewd rebuilding project. First there was Domingos Duarte, recently called up to the Portuguese squad, then there was Darwin Machís, Yan Eteki and Fede Vico. And then there were loan moves for Yangel Herrera, Dimitri Foulquier, Maxime Gonalons, as well as, most significantly, for strikers Roberto Soldado and Carlos Fernández, who would go on to take LaLiga by storm.

Granada’s first game in the top-flight would show the rest of the division exactly what they were about. Lining up to take on Villarreal with a largely inexperienced squad, Martínez told the Coaches Voice how he told his players to capitalise on their emotions and to show their personality. And, finding themselves 4-2 down with just 20 minutes to go, his side demonstrated the kind of spirit and belief that has gone on to characterise their remarkable rise, as Roberto Soldado and Antonio Puertas nicked a dramatic 4-4 draw at one of the trickiest grounds of them all. With 22 ball recoveries in the opposition half, and two set-piece goals, it would also be a warning to the rest of the division about the tenacity of this high-pressing side, all working tirelessly for their manager, as well as their danger from corners and free-kicks.

Over the next nine games, Granada would go on to pick up six wins, including a famous 2-0 triumph over Barcelona, that would place them, albeit momentarily, at the summit of Spanish football; a striking symbol of what the club had achieved in such a short space of time. Even with the inevitable rough patch that followed, the side showed the fight and mental strength to regain a steady winning pace, culminating in a final-day 4-0 thrashing of Athletic Club, to secure a historic, highest-ever finish of 6th in the Spanish top-flight. A sensational achievement, and one that qualified Granada for European competition for the first time in their history. All, while most had tipped them to be relegated.

In just one, unbelievable season, Granada had come to embody fearlessness and self-belief, but many thought the Europa League was one step too far. Even as the club strengthened further, bolstering their attacking options with Colombian forward Luis Suárez, talented attacking midfielder Luis Milla and the loan capture of Kenedy, most expected a group-stage exit at the hands of PSV Eindhoven and PAOK.

Surpassing expectations once again, though, Granada travelled to Eindhoven for what looked the toughest of all the upcoming ties, and came from behind to win 2-1, as first Molina and then Machís, with the most sensational of curling efforts, sealed an unforgettable competition debut win for Martínez’s side. In the end, they’d make the group stage look pretty easy, as they went on to qualify for the knockout stages with a game to spare, setting up a tantalising clash with Napoli in the Round of 32.

In what was undoubtedly the biggest game of their history, they welcomed Gennaro Gattuso’s side to the Nuevo Los Cármenes with an ever-growing injury list. The 38th game of the season already for Granada, the hectic schedule had claimed Roberto Soldado, Luis Milla, Luis Suárez and Germán Sánchez – leaving them with a threadbare squad to face a side whose striker, Victor Osimhen, cost over five times more than the whole Granada starting XI put together.

Yet, against all the odds once again, Granada showed the value of a strong, collective effort, as a Kenedy-inspired 2-0 victory saw them head to Naples with a healthy advantage. And, while they lost the second leg 2-1 – a sensational looping header from Ángel Montoro, coupled with an inspired defensive performance – sent Granada, unbelievably, through to the final 16.

From massive underdogs to potential favourites, Granada drew fellow giant-killers Molde in the Round of 16. This time though, while still in the absence of record-signing Suárez, it was their veteran strikers, Molina and Soldado, who stepped up, the latter rifling home a stunning volley to secure another vital 2-0 home win. It was then Soldado again who grabbed the crucial away goal in Budapest to see them through, even more unbelievably, to the final eight. Underdogs or not, write this Granada side off at your peril.

With more recent injuries to full-backs Carlos Neva and Foulquier, Granada will almost definitely line up in their classic 4-2-3-1 formation against United on Thursday, with a side close to below. On the bench, they are left with plenty of attacking options should they need to switch things up, with tricky wingers Antonio Puertas and Domingos Quina both pushing for starts. Fede Vico has also been impressing recently, with Molina waiting in the wings should the deadly Soldado misfire.

In Kenedy and Machis, Granada possess explosivity and unpredictability on the wings, with both players very capable of producing the spectacular. On loan from Manchester City, versatile midfield Yangel Herrera is “getting better every time he plays” according to his manager, and will look to link up with expert finisher Soldado up top, who has been a clinical and unforgiving presence in attack all season long. Sitting in front of the defence, midfield metronomes Maxime Gonalons and Ángel Montoro will look to control the tempo in the middle of the park, with Yan Eteki offering a more defensively tenacious option from the bench, while the imperious Domingos Duarte and Germán Sánchez oversee the back four. And finally, Rui Silva, recently called up to the Portugal squad with Duarte, is one of the outstanding goalkeepers in LaLiga.

While their league form has dipped slightly this season, Granada’s 9th place position is still incredibly impressive, given how much bigger squads than their own have been worn away by midweek European commitments in the past. It may have been a tired performance at the weekend as they fell 3-0 to a Gerard Moreno inspired Villarreal, but if any side is allowed a blip every now and again, it’s Diego Martínez’s men. And, if any Manchester United fans are looking to the form table as encouragement, they should be warned that Granada were winless in six LaLiga games before they beat Napoli 2-0.

“Not even the most optimistic Granada fan would have believed this,” Martínez said before that famous victory. “From the second division to competing in the UEFA Europa League in just two years. It’s incredible. We will never be the biggest club, but we are ambitious.”

They might be up against it on Thursday, but it’s that very ambition that has carried them to these unimaginable heights. Maybe, just maybe, Diego Martínez has one more trick up his sleeve.

Thom Harris

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