Analysing the opening few rounds of the Europa League
The Europa League group stages are almost at an end, with some groups already wrapped up and others looking all but decided. We’ve seen plenty of drama and some big clubs still have work to do if they want to reach the knockout stages.
Every team has, at the time of writing, played four games each meaning they only have a few games left to fight their way into contention for the next stage of the tournament.
Group A has produced some of the most interesting Europa League results this year, with Lyon leading the pack and winning all of their games at the time of writing. They remain the only team in the competition with a 100% winning record.
It began with a 2-0 romp of Rangers at the Ibrox in September, where Karl Toko Ekambi produced a piece of individual brilliance and James Tavernier scored an unfortunate own goal.
Then there was the thrilling 4-3 victory over Sparta Prague, in which Lyon had to come back from a 2-0 deficit and make do with 10 men after a red card in the 74th minute.
Lyon followed that up with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Prague at home, proving that they can learn from their mistakes and that they’re clearly one of the teams to watch as the competition progresses.
Rangers, however, have had a much tougher time of it though could be clawing their way back into contention for the knockout stages despite losing their first two group games. A recent draw with Brondby earned them a well-deserved point and kept their hopes of progression alive.
Rangers’ domestic rivals Celtic also found themselves staring down the barrel of an embarrassing exit from the tournament early on in the group stages, also losing both their opening games.
However, back-to-back wins over Ferencvaros have guaranteed Celtic at least a spot in the Europa Conference League playoffs, even if they lose their final two group stage games.
That second win over the Hungarian side was particularly dramatic, with the visitors squandering an early lead before regaining it and having to hold on to it tightly in the dying minutes after a late goal from Ferencvaros.
Topping their group are Bayer Leverkusen, who recently asserted their dominance with a 4-0 hammering of second-place Real Betis. Moussa Diaby supplied two of the goals but Leverkusen’s brilliance was overshadowed in the final minutes of the game when both sides received a red card for violent conduct.
Leicester City are another UK side who have struggled to find their feet in the Europa League so far, and now have to win their two remaining games in order to guarantee a spot in the last 16. They’ve only won one of their group games to date and their most recent outing – a 1-1 draw with Spartak Moscow – was particularly frustrating.
Brendan Rodgers’ side conceded a fairly cheap goal before levelling the score a few minutes later, only for Jamie Vardy to fumble a chance at three points by firing off a weak penalty, which was saved.
Prior to that, Leicester had earned a stunning 4-3 victory over the Russian side on away turf. The Foxes entered halftime 2-0 down and things were looking grim, but an unforgettable solo performance from Patson Daka earned his club their first win in the Europa group stages.
Daka converted a nine-minute hat-trick and added a fourth for good measure during the second 45 minutes, making him Leicester’s joint top scorer in Europe and, more importantly, doing enough to see off Moscow, despite a late goal from the hosts.
West Ham United have been one of the more impressive teams in the tournament so far and currently lead Group H with 10 points from four games. Their winning run was snapped in their last game when KRC Genk managed to nullify a double from Said Benrahma to finish the game 2-2.
Benrahma has been something of a revelation for the Hammers in recent months, particularly in the Europa League and the English side have guaranteed themselves a spot in the knockout stages for the first time in 40 years.
As the group stages enter their final stages and we begin to see which teams are guaranteed a knockout spot, which will have to earn one in the playoffs and whose European campaigns will be over, the drama is surely only going to heighten.
The likes of Leicester and Celtic now have no room for mistakes if they want to stay in the competition, while Lyon, West Ham and others are in imperious form.