UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE GROUP STAGE PREVIEW

The Europa League returns after Sevilla’s thrilling run to winning back to back titles and as usual you expect the English clubs to complain about the wicked fixture congestion and the long trips; but I must say it is important for the English team to take the competition serious as their big teams continue to struggle in the Champions League. A good run in the Europa League would aid the coefficients of the English Premier League; with that all said, here’s a preview of each of the Groups.

GROUP A– Ajax, Celtic, Fernerbahce, Molde

This is arguably the toughest and biggest group if reputation and prestige in the European competition is anything to go by. It features Ajax and Celtic, two former European champions who probably will be unhappy with having to play in the champions league’s ‘ugly sister’ and will be doing everything possible to progress as much as possible in order to find some solace or compensation.

Fenerbahce is also another club in the group with a rich history and have enjoyed good runs in Europe. The last team, Molde are 2014 Norwegian champions and they will also fancy their chance in a much bigger stage with hopes of being great ambassadors of their league. All of these adds credence to the fact that this might the toughest group of all. Every game counts and a slip might be the undoing of any of the clubs. Be that as it may, Ajax and Celtic are expected to do the needful by securing victories at home and avoiding defeats on the road.

GROUP B– Liverpool, Rubin Kazan, Bordeaux, Sion

Liverpool are, without a doubt, the biggest name in the group but they won’t be having it easy. The Europa league is a difficult competition to play partly because of the quality of oppositions but majorly because of the long travels.

Grouped with Rubin Kazan, Bordeaux and Sion ensures that Liverpool will travel a total of 6,642 miles which can be dodgy given the fact that other duties, prominently the league duty, will call.

In terms of play, none of the teams has been hugely convincing as Brendan Rodgers is yet to find a balance in his team after another summer of huge spending. Similarly, things are not going as planned for Rubin Kazan in Russia as they are enduring a slow start on the heels of a disappointing season where they finished fifth. Bordeaux and Sion relatively look solid but life in Europe has its own complexities and dynamics.

The test for every team will be the long trip to Russia to play Rubin Kazan and whoever picks most points there might just be smiling to the next stage.

GROUP C– Borussia Dortmund, PAOK, Krasnodar, Qabala

The club a lot of other teams will want to avoid right now is definitely Borussia Dortmund given their new found form under Thomas Tuchel and the manner in which they qualified, scoring 22 goals in four games. More so, they are currently sitting on top of the Bundesliga table with four victories from four games.

PAOK, Krasnodar and Qabala who are the other teams in the group may have to give up the first position and focus on escorting Dortmund in second place unless of course something extraordinary happens which isn’t impossible in the round leather game.

Thomas Tuchel should however brace up for the long travels to Greece, Russia and Azerbaijan. These trips only look good for tourists, not football clubs.

GROUP K– Schalke 04, APOEL Nicosia, Sparta Prague, Asteras Tripolis

German club Schalke 04 have what appears to be an easy group on paper given their quality as opposed to the oppositions they have in APOEL, Sparta Prague and Asteras Tripolis.

If they can combine league commitment and the trips well, they should be able to shut the door on defeat both at home and on the road.

GROUP L– Athletic Bilbao, AZ Alkamaar, Augsburg, Partizan Belgrade

Athletic Bilbao will slug it out with AZ Alkamaar, Augsburg and Partizan to secure qualification into the next stage.

The draw seem to have favored the Spanish side but they need to be wary especially when they face German club, Augsburg who are known to bruise the ego of seeming bigger clubs.

Group D– Napoli, Club Brugge, Legia Warsaw, Midtjylland

Group D promises to be a group of unpredictability as the four teams are best at being inconsistent, but Napoli are top seeds for a reason. On the basis of playing personnel, no team comes close. However, the Italians have endured a mix start to the season and will hope to have a better start on the continent. In Gonzalo Higuain, Dries Merteens, Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik, Napoli can count on creativity and goals while the return of Pepe Reina gives better hope than last season in the goalkeeping section.

For Club Brugge, the exploits of last season were a welcome sight for Belgian teams in Europe but their loss to Manchester United in the final qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League clearly shows there might be much to be desired this season. Expectedly, Legia Warsaw and Midtjylland are the underdogs in this group but an opening day win for either of these sides could make the fight for a second place finish exciting. Napoli, should finish first.

Group E– Villarreal, Viktoria Plzen, Rapid Vienna, Dinamo Minsk

With all due respect, let’s focus on who finishes second between Plzen and Vienna. Credit to Dinamo Minsk for getting to the group stage but this is where it ends for them. Villarreal should top this group with some comfort.

Few seasons ago, Viktoria Plzen stunned Europe when they defeated Bayern Munich in the champions league. The team from Belarus will be hoping for a Cinderella run this time around in the Europa League but a decent Rapid Vienna side stands in their way. The six pointer between the sides will be the defining factor in who progresses.

Villarreal are clearly favourites and can have a go in this year’s competition. Summer signing, Roberto Soldado is looking like his old self; scoring and making trouble for defenders. No excuse will be tolerated for failure to qualify from this group.

Group F–  Marseille, Braga, Slovan Liberec, Groningen

The sale of key players such as Florient Thauvin, Dmitri Payet, Andre Ayew and Gianni Imbula coupled with the exit of Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille has seen the French side suffer an indifferent start to this season’s Ligue 1 campaign. Not only did they lose so much by selling, the money recouped wasn’t invested into the squad, a major reason why Bielsa left after the opening weekend. Marseille are clearly a troubled side but teams in this group, give them hope.

Braga and Liberec are no super powers while Groningen is a mid table Eredivisie side. However, there’s some measure of quality in the Dutch side.

There are no clear favourites here and it will be interesting to see if Liberec and Groningen can capitalize on this and topple their more illustrious group mates.

Group G– Dnipro, SS Lazio, St. Etienne, Rosenberg

Arguably one of the toughest groups in this season’s Europa League. The first three sides have almost the same chances of progressing to the next stage while Rosenberg stand no chance.

Last season’s finalists, Dnipro have kept a bulk of the side that made it all the way and will more than fancy their chances. Lazio are an interesting side but the season hasn’t started well. The capital side’s defensive frailties, mostly characterized by a seemingly lack of pace were exposed in the 4-0 loss to Chievo on match day two in the Serie A.

These two have been tipped to qualify from the group, but St. Etienne might just upset the apple cart. Having punched above their weight in the French Ligue 1 last season, St. Etienne will look to continue the steady rise by having a good European season. Surely, Group G will be an exciting one!

Group H– Sporting Lisbon, Besiktas, Lokomotiv Moscow, Skenderban

Skenderban’s campaign looks over before it has even started. This is a straight fight between the other three.

Sporting are in the Europa League and not champions league for a reason. Profligacy.

One of Portugal’s finest club sides in history, Sporting will need to improve upfront if they’re to qualify from this difficult group. Besiktas and Lokomotiv are no strangers to the continent and have experience within their ranks. It’s difficult to predict who will finish first or second and neutral fans should just sit back and enjoy these sides who could have been playing on Tuesday and Wednesday nights rather than Thursdays.

Group I– Basel, Fiorentina, Lech Poznan, Belenenses

I was surprised to see Belenenses pick up one of the available European tickets in Portugal last season and are the greenest horns in this group. Their inexperience and the others superior quality might see them remain bottom at the end of proceedings.

Basel and Fiorentina are more experienced at this level and boast better quality when compared to Lech Poznan and that will eventually count. The fight in this group will be for first place. For Fiorentina, the return of Guiseppe Rossi will bolster the attack after the loss of last season’s loanee wonder Mohammed Salah. Basel continue to remain the best team in Switzerland and in recent years have always progressed to the knock out stages. This time around, the team will be aiming higher and if they get their acts right, they are well capable of lasting the distance.

Group J– Tottenham Hotspurs, Anderlecht, AS Monaco, Qarabag

Tottenham have been perennial underachievers in this competition and while Daniel Levy wants to play with the big boys in the champions league, his team have proven to be good enough for only the Europa League.

AS Monaco have once again suffered another summer of selling their star players. Juan Carrasco, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Abdennour and Anthony Martial have all left for bigger clubs and more money. But unlike their French rivals, Marseille, Monaco have reinvested. The duo of Stephan El-Sharaawy and Fabio Contreao have been brought in to add quality and add to the cutting edge they enjoyed last season.

Over there in Belgium, Anderlecht provided one of the best comebacks in European football against Arsenal. Trailing by 3-0, the Belgians rallied back to level things up with about 11 minutes left. Anderlecht are not expected to win the competition but they might just find themselves in the knockout rounds if either Monaco or Tottenham falter.

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