Manchester United and Arsenal conclude their Europa League group stage campaigns on Thursday night with their exact position in their respective groups still uncertain.
Erik ten Hag knows what’s at stake for United as they travel to face Real Sociedad in what will be a shootout for the decisive top spot in Group E.
Arsenal take top spot in Group A going into their final game against FC Zurich at the Emirates Stadium.
Manchester United’s defeat to Real Sociedad on matchday one could still prove costly
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have a better chance of winning their group than their Premier League rivals
Both sides will be keen to win their groups, but why is top spot so important? And who could they face in the next round?
Here, Sportsmail takes you through United and Arsenal’s permutations, including who they could face if they fail to achieve their main goal on Thursday night.
What do the tables look like with a game to play?
United are second in the group with 12 points from their five games so far, three behind Real Sociedad, who have a 100 per cent record. The two teams have already qualified for the knockout stages.
Real have the head-to-head advantage over United and also a better goal difference – +9 compared to +6.
Arsenal are top with 12 points, two ahead of PSV in second place. However, just like their Premier League counterparts, they have a worse head-to-head record than their rivals.
What do Manchester United and Arsenal need to do to top their groups?
Nothing less than victory in San Sebastian by at least two clear goals will be enough for Ten Hag’s men.
Should United beat Real Sociedad, both teams will finish on 15 points. According to Europa League tie-break rules, final positions are decided on head-to-head records between the teams in question.
With the La Liga outfit beating United 1-0 at Old Trafford in September, the Red Devils will need to improve on that scoreline in Spain to pip Real to top spot.
If United win 2-1, 3-2 or even 4-3, the teams will be level on goal difference in their head-to-head records, but the Spanish side will take first place by virtue of their superior goal difference over the six matches. Away goals in the two matches between United and Real Sociedad do not count.
Arsenal are in pole position and will top their group if they beat FC Zurich on Thursday
A win by two clear goals will ensure that United have the better of the two games against Sociedad and would therefore see them top the group.
La Real are in the driver’s seat as they will go through as group winners if they avoid defeat or lose by a single goal.
Arsenal’s path to top spot is a bit more straightforward: win and it’s theirs. All they need to do is better or match the result between PSV and Bodo/Glimt and they will surely advance to the round of 16.
Should Mikel Arteta’s side slip up on Thursday, they could finish second. If they draw against FC Zürich, and PSV overcome Bodo/Glimt, both the Gunners and PSV will finish on 13 points.
Erik ten Hag knows exactly what is at stake when United travel to face Real Sociedad
But it will be PSV who take first place in this scenario as the Dutch outfit have the better head-to-head record after beating Arsenal 2-0 on matchday five, giving them a 2-1 aggregate score over the two games with Arteta’s men.
Why is it so important to win the group?
The group winners go directly to the round of 16, while second-placed teams go to the round of 32, which is effectively a play-off against a team relegated from the Champions League.
Taking first place means two fewer games and, in theory, a smoother run to the finals.
United and Arsenal already have a packed schedule when domestic and European football resumes after the World Cup suspension and could do without two extra games.
Who could Manchester United and Arsenal play if they don’t win the group?
In the play-off round, the eight teams that finish second in their Europa League group are seeded and drawn against one of the sides that have been relegated from the Champions League.
It is a potentially dangerous path for United and Arsenal as Barcelona, Juventus, Ajax, Sevilla, Bayer Leverkusen, Sporting Lisbon, Red Bull Salzburg and Shakhtar Donetsk are their possible opponents.
Barcelona are among United and Arsenal’s possible opponents if they fail to win the group
POSSIBLE PLAY-OFF MODES
Red Bull Salzburg
There are plenty of tough ties, but also plenty of intrigue – including the possibility of a quick return to Old Trafford for Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba.
And if they do?
United and Arsenal will go directly to the round of 16 if they top the group.
There they will be seeded and drawn against one of the eight playoff winners, with the second round at home. They can’t play someone from their own country.
Real Betis, Belgium’s Union Saint-Gilloise, Ferencvaros and Freiburg are the teams that have so far guaranteed a place in the round of 16 by winning their respective groups before the final matchday.
What are the dates for the next round?
The play-offs for the knockout rounds are scheduled for 16 and 23 February, with the last 16 matches on 9 and 16 March.
When are the playoffs?
Monday, November 7 at 12.00 GMT.
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