Though the Champions League gets most of the attention, you should never overlook the Europa League. It might not boast as many elite players as its sister competition, but the Europa League can be just as exciting to watch.
The lack of traditional powerhouse clubs creates a more even playing field, and many teams will be confident in their chances. One only has to look back at last year’s competition to see this. Of the eight teams that made it to the quarter-finals, only one (Dinamo Zagreb) has returned to the competition. Of the other seven, Manchester United, Villareal, and Ajax Amsterdam made the step up to the Champions League. AS Roma and Slavia Praha, meanwhile, dropped down to the Europa Conference League, UEFA’s newest competition. As for Arsenal and Granada CF, they failed to qualify for Europe altogether.
Because of this, it is hard to predict an ultimate winner with any real confidence. This is only further complicated with the knowledge that eight more teams will drop down from the Champions League come the knockout rounds. However, a few teams are already worth keeping an eye on.
SSC Napoli (Group C)
Napoli missed out on the Champions League by a single point on the final day of last season’s Serie A. As such, the Italians are one of the early favourites to be lifting the trophy in Sevilla come May. Under new manager Luciano Spalletti, Gli Azzuri have started the domestic campaign strongly, winning their first three games. Their star-studded squad notably contains three members of Italy’s EURO-winning team in Lorenzo Insigne, Giovanni di Lorenzo, and Alex Meret. Coupled with defensive stalwart Kalidou Koulibaly and promising striker Victor Osimhen, the team has everything to succeed.
Though their group has another favourite in Leicester City, Napoli will be confident of reaching the knockout round. Their trip to England on Matchday 1 might then not be vital to progression, but could determine who tops the group and who has to settle for second. As such, their confrontation makes for a mouth-watering tie.
Real Sociedad (Group B)
Another team in great form, Real Sociedad have won their last three La Liga games without conceding. Their only loss so far this season came against Barcelona on opening day. Back in the Europa League after a two-year hiatus, they will look to that defensive solidity to take them deep into the competition. Also crucial to La Real‘s chances will be star forward Mikel Oyarzabal, who is coming off a stellar performance at the Olympics. Oyarzabal contributed to five goals in his six appearances in Tokyo as Spain claimed the silver medal. Now back at his club, he has shown no sign of stopping. He currently sits second in La Liga’s goalscoring charts, with four goals in four games.
Sociedad can now look to their domestic foes for inspiration as they start their European campaign. La Liga is, after all, home to seven of the last ten Europa League winners. Real Sociedad might well see this and think their turn is next.
West Ham United (Group H)
West Ham shocked many with their performance last season, which saw them pipe traditional top six teams to a Europa League spot. The only other time they did so, they were prematurely eliminated by Romanian minnow Astra Giurgiu in the playoff round. This will thus be their first appearance in the group stage, and they will be determined to set things right.
Last season’s star performer, Jesse Lingard, has returned to parent club Manchester United, but the Hammers still have a strong attacking threat. Striker Michail Antonio won the Premier League’s August Player of the Month award with seven goal contributions in three games. He is supported by the equally in-form Saïd Benrahma and Pablo Fornals. With them, West Ham can have high hopes as long as they adapt to regular midweek games. Manager David Moyes will need to manage rotation carefully to remain competitive on two fronts while not running his star men into the ground.
PSV Eindhoven (Group B)
PSV Eindhoven might not play in one of Europe’s top five leagues, buy you’d be foolish to overlook them. The Dutch club started their European campaign back in July, competing in the Champions League’s early qualifying rounds. In doing so, they already put in some statement performances. Most notably, they administered a 5-1 drubbing of Champions League regulars Galatasaray in Round 2. Then, in Round 3, they swept Midtjylland aside with a 4-0 aggregate victory. Their only slip-up came at the final hurdle against Benfica. This has not dented their momentum though, as they currently sit top of the Eredivisie. The only Dutch team left with a 100% record, they won their opening four games by a combined score of 14-3.
PSV’s team has a good blend of youth and experience. The most recognisable face among its seasoned pros is that of Mario Götze, scorer of the winning goal at the 2014 World Cup. Among its youngsters, two wingers stand out in Cody Gakpo and Noni Madueke. 22 and 19 years old, respectively, the pair have nine goals and five assists between them this season. These players also epitomise the team’s exciting brand of attacking soccer, which will cause problems for many. Despite this, progression out of the group is far from certain. PSV got one of the toughest draws, finding themselves alongside Real Sociedad, AS Monaco, and Sturm Graz. Their opening game, at home to Sociedad, could then prove crucial to their chances. This makes it one of the must-see matchups of Matchday 1.
Rangers FC (Group A)
The final team on this list also hails from a smaller league. Rangers join the Europa League fresh off a Scottish Premiership title, their first in ten years. And not only did they win the league, they did so in style. The Gers accumulated 102 points as they went the entire season undefeated. And though they’ve already lost once this time around, their form remains excellent. They are once more league leaders, having won four out of their opening five games. Chief amongst those victories was the 1-0 defeat of bitter rivals Celtic in the Old Firm derby.
Though their players are not the most recognisable names in soccer, Rangers still have many talented individuals. The likes of Ianis Hagi, son of Romanian icon Gheorghe Hagi, James Tavernier, Ryan Kent, and Alfred Morelos will all look to impress. But the most famous name at the club is the manager. Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard is now in his fourth season as a coach, and many credit him for their recent resurgence. With some already calling for Gerrard to be Jürgen Klopp’s long term successor at his boyhood club, the ex-England midfielder will be keen to prove his credentials on a big stage. The Europa League could be just the place for him to do that.
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