The Reds, who missed out on qualifying for Europe’s premier competition last season, were guaranteed to finish in at least fourth spot in the Barclays Premier League when fifth-placed Liverpool lost at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday evening. The Eagles, with former United winger Wilfried Zaha among the scorers, beat Brendan Rodgers’ side 3-1 in Steven Gerrard’s final home match as captain.
Louis van Gaal’s men still have an opportunity to finish higher in the table, but need other results going the right way. A victory over third-placed Arsenal on Sunday would put United a point ahead of the Gunners, but Arsene Wenger’s men crucially have a game in hand, at home to Sunderland on Wednesday, ensuring their destiny remains in their own hands. Second-placed Manchester City are currently five points ahead of the Reds with two games to go – the Blues travel to Swansea on Sunday lunchtime, before finishing with a home game against Southampton.
If United finish the campaign in fourth, the Reds will need to get through a two-legged qualifying play-off to be in the hat for the group stage. The draw for the play-off takes place on Friday 7 August with the first leg to be played on 18/19 August and the second leg scheduled for 25/26 August.
The play-off round will be divided into two sections with a ‘Champions Route’ and a ‘League Route’. The first section features clubs who have won the domestic league in some of Europe’s lesser-known nations, while the second section, which United will be in, involves clubs that finish second, third or fourth in the more prominent European leagues. A seeding system, based on the UEFA Club Coefficient, should work in the Reds’ favour and mean United are seeded; indeed van Gaal’s team are likely to be the highest-ranked side in the play-off round and should therefore avoid some more well-known opposition.
If United progress to the group stage proper, the draw for which takes place on 27 August, then the Reds will be in seeding pot two. UEFA have, however, made changes to the group stage seeding system for the 2015/16 campaign with the champions of the seven biggest leagues in Europe (England, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Russia) now being named as top seeds along with this year’s Champions League winners (Barcelona or Juventus). That means the Reds could face the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Benfica or Porto, PSG or Lyon and Zenit Saint Petersburg. Of course, two English clubs cannot together at the group stage so United would avoid playing Chelsea.
If the Champions League winners are also their domestic league winners (Juventus have already won Serie A, while Barcelona are on course to triumph in La Liga), then the champions of the eighth-ranked country, the Netherlands, would be named as top seeds. If that happens, Memphis Depay’s soon-to-be former club PSV Eindhoven would be in pot one.
The final teams in each group of four will come from the third and fourth pots which will feature sides who have made it through the earlier qualifying process.