What happens if Man United finish 3rd in Champions League group? Europa League route explained

Ahead of their match away to Galatasaray on Wednesday in the Champions League, Manchester United’s chances of reaching the knockout rounds of the competition this season remain in the balance. 

So far through four matches, the Red Devils have picked up just three points in Group A, winning one and losing on three occasions as the Premier League side have underwhelmed in winnable matches. 

Their prior outing ended in a loss that came away to FC Copenhagen as even though they were leading 2-0 in the first half, Erik ten Hag’s side eventually fell to a 3-4 defeat in the Danish capital. 

That leaves matches away to Galatasaray and at home to Bayern Munich left for Manchester United to turn around their fortunes and reach the Round of 16 stage. 

MORE: UEFA Champions League group stage standings, results, schedule, and fixtures for 2023/24 

Will Man United qualify for Champions League knockout stage?

Despite many predicting Manchester United to easily finish in the top two spots in Champions League Group A during their 2023/24 campaign, the famous English side have found the going extremely tough. 

Losses to Bayern Munich and Copenhagen away from home and Galatasaray at Old Trafford have seen the English side slump to bottom spot in the standings ahead of matchday five. In order to reach the knockout stages, they need to finish in the top two and in truth, will likely need to win both of their remaining matches in order to succeed in that regard. 

As it stands, Copenhagen, Galatasaray and Manchester United are all in with a shot of making the Round of 16 with Bayern Munich.

Galatasaray potentially have the advantage, as they’ve already played Bayern twice. Their home game against United will be all-important, although the Turkish side, like Copenhagen, cannot qualify for the next round or be eliminated on matchday five.

If Man United beat Galatasaray and, as expected, Bayern defeat Copenhagen in Germany, Erik ten Hag’s side will be on six points, with their two rivals both on four. A United win in their final game at home to Bayern would then guarantee qualification, with a draw likely good enough thanks to head-to-head record. However, United would be out if they lost to Galatasaray, with the Turkish side then potentially playing out a decider on the final matchday against Copenhagen.

Group A

Team GP W D L GD P
Bayern Munich (Q) 4 4 0 0 +5 12
FC Copenhagen 4 1 1 2 -1 4
Galatasaray 4 1 1 2 -2 4
Manchester United 4 1 0 3 -2 3

What happens if Man Utd finish third in their Champions League group stage?

At present in 2023/24, UEFA has three European competitions that teams participate within; the Champions League, the Europa League and the Europa Conference League. 

The Champions League is the most prestigious of the three tournaments with some of the biggest clubs in European football qualifying for the competition each season, including Manchester United this time around. 

In the UCL group stage in its current format, the best two sides who finish first and second progress to the knockout rounds of the tournament but if a team finishes third in the group, they are then demoted to the Europa League instead.

Therefore, if the Red Devils finish in third spot in Group A this season, they will then join the Europa League for the knockout round playoffs with victory in that tie seeing them reach the Round of 16 stage. 

Last season, United were on the opposite side and after finishing second in their Europa League group they had to face Barcelona (who dropped out of the Champions League) in the Europa League knockout round playoffs before continuing into the Round of 16.

When did Man United last fail to reach Champions League knockout stage?

Although Manchester United remain one of England’s most famous and decorated clubs, they’ve very much struggled in the Champions League over the past decade. 

That remains in sharp contrast to both the 1998/99 and 2007/08 seasons when the Red Devils lifted the famous trophy under former manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The club also won the competition back in 1967/68 when it was named the European Cup. 

Unfortunately for United fans this time around, their side remains in trouble and could fail to even make it out of the group stage. Since the competition was rebranded as the Champions League back before the 1993/94 season, that has happened five times before to the Premier League outfit with the last of those coming in their 2020/21 campaign when they were dumped out of their group by PSG and RB Leipzig. 

Man United’s Europa League record

Despite their prior glory of becoming the first English side to win the European Cup back in 1968 with victory over Benfica and the modern Champions League in 1999 against Bayern Munich, United have actually enjoyed more success in the Europa League across recent seasons — European football’s second tier competition.

Their first direct qualification for the competition, via a Premier League finish, subsequently resulted in Jose Mourinho’s side winning the 2017 final against Ajax thanks to goals from Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in a solid 2-0 victory. 

Since then, United have reached the semifinals and final of the competition, in 2020 and 2021 respectively, with Sevilla knocking them out at the semifinal stage in 2020 and Villarreal winning the 2022 final on penalties. Last season they were again dumped out by Sevilla in the quarterfinals.

Season Stage Reached Eliminated by
2022/23 Quarterfinals Sevilla
2020/21 Final Villarreal
2019/20 Semifinals Sevilla
2016/17 Final Winners
2015/16 Round of 16 Liverpool
2011/12 Round of 16 Athletic Bilbao
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