UEFA Europa League Preview

Written by Square in the Air

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This year’s Europa League group stage is comprised of a frankly ludicrous 48 teams across 12 groups, the top two of which will progress to the next, um, group stage. As ever, the second-tier competition offers the customary contrast of well-established household names combined with a host of little known minnows who will almost certainly command their 15 minutes of fame at some point over the course of the next few months.

Yet this competition is not without pedigree; Liverpool, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Celtic have all previously won the Champions League – or European Cup – while, at various points during the past decade, Monaco, Villarreal, Napoli and Sporting Lisbon have all enjoyed reasonable success at Europe’s top table. The unknown quantities, Qabala, Midtjylland, Slovan Liberec, Skenderbeu Korce and Sion to name but a few, will undoubtedly be full of players desperate to make a name for themselves on a European stage. For all the naysayers, there is still a certain charm to the Europa League.

A few of the so-called ‘big’ teams will run into domestic trouble – I’m looking at you Liverpool – and will not be too bothered about results, giving the likes of Sion, Dinamo Minsk or Belenenses the chance to record a famous victory or two. Before a ball is kicked in anger, the early stages have a somewhat lopsided feel with heavy favourites and huge underdogs in most groups.

With Southampton and West Ham already taking their leave of this competition in qualifying, Tottenham, Liverpool and Celtic will provide the British challenge.

Liverpool and Tottenham have often struggled in the latter stages of this competition but should be more than strong enough to get through their groups, while Celtic have a job on their hands if they’re to progress from a formidable looking Group A.

Group B looks more interesting than it might on first sight, with Liverpool, Bordeaux and Rubin Kazan the main contenders to go through. Liverpool have been less than impressive so far and produced a shocking performance at the weekend at Old Trafford which won’t have warmed too many Scouse hearts. Reds’ boss Brendan Rodgers has come under increased pressure for his team’s lack of pace and cutting edge but may view the Europa League as sweet respite. On the other hand, if their domestic struggles continue, we may see Rodgers playing under strength sides in the competition and, with Bordeaux gaining confidence after their hard fought draw at PSG last weekend.

Villarreal in Group E have had an encouraging start to the season with two wins on the bounce in La Liga and will fancy this competition. Villarreal’s new forward Cedric Bakambu has started promisingly, forming an effective partnership with Roberto Soldado, who seems to have left his Spurs nightmare behind him..

Schalke, in Group K, should be safe passengers into the next round as group winners as well but they have pesky trips to Cyprus and Greece in store.

Group J looks the most competitive group where minnows Qarabag, from Azerbaijan, join three teams who have, in recent seasons, plenty of Champions League experience in Tottenham, Monaco and Anderlecht. Spurs’ win at the weekend suggests that they’re finally starting to click this season but they’ll need Harry Kane to find his goal scoring boots again if they’re to be confident of going through as group winners. Monaco have let many of their stars go in recent years but they still managed to reach the Champions League quarter finals last year, knocking out Arsenal along the way. The Ligue 1 side has again lost one of their prized assets in Anthony Martial to Manchester United but remain a dangerous prospect.

The most exciting group this year might well be Group A, certainly in terms of atmospheres. Fenerbahce have added serious quality in Robin van Persie and Nani, while Ajax lead the Eredivisie and look to be making good progress under well-respected coach, Frank de Boer. The Turkish giants are rightly the favourites to top the group but, and while little is expected of Norway’s Molde, Celtic have a penchant for stirring, dramatic European nights and could sneak into a qualifying spot. Celtic Park is still a feared fortress and, although they lost Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk to Southampton this summer, they’re always difficult to write off on the European stage.

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