The Potential Winners of the Inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League
UEFA introduced the Europa Conference League for the 2021/22 season, designed to exist at the bottom of the pyramid in continental competition terms. The Europa Conference League sits below the Europa League and the pinnacle of European football, the UEFA Champions League.
Although the plan was to give clubs from lesser-known UEFA member associations a chance to play competitive continental football. However, as this season’s competition enters the quarter-final stage, there are some notable teams left battling it out for the first taste of Europa Conference League silverware.
Below, we explore some of the prime candidates to win the 2021/22 Europa Conference League and earn instant qualification into the 2022/23 UEFA Europa League.
Leicester City will fancy their chances of getting their hands on their first piece of European silverware in the club’s history. Although they reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League the year after their miraculous Premier League title — which still ranks as arguably the greatest underdog success in modern times — winning the Europa Conference League would still be a fine effort considered the calibre of teams left in the competition. Brendan Rodgers’ men have failed to hit the heights of recent seasons in the 2021/22 Premier League campaign, but finishing the year with a trophy would suffice. A tricky test in the last eight awaits against Dutch giants PSV. If they can get through that, they stand a great chance.
Speaking of PSV, Eindhoven will almost certainly be feeling the same as Leicester about their quarter-final match-up. PSV are currently in second place in the Dutch Eredivisie, four points behind league leaders Ajax in the battle for Champions League group stage qualification. The current PSV squad contains some stellar names, including German icon Mario Götze, Dutch skipper Marco van Ginkel, as well as former Tottenham academy graduate Noni Madueke. Götze has been particularly prolific this term, with 11 goals and nine assists in 44 games.
Olympique de Marseille are currently France’s second-best team in the 2021/22 Ligue 1 table. Although they sit 12 points shy of leaders Paris Saint-Germain, they have inched three points clear of Rennes in the second and final Champions League group stage qualification spot. Jorge Sampaoli’s side are entering a red-hot streak of form right now. At the end of February, league defeats to Clermont and Monaco left their Champions League aspirations in tatters, but a marked upturn in fortunes last month has turbocharged their season. They must surely fancy their chances in the Conference League last eight against Greek outfit PAOK, who remain firmly in Olympiakos’ shadow in Greece’s Super League.
You might be forgiven for thinking Jose Mourinho wouldn’t give the Europa Conference League the respect it deserves. The Portuguese has succeeded at the top table of European football in the Champions League, but the third tier of European competition remains his priority with Roma in 2021/22. While they continue to track that elusive fourth place in Italy’s Serie A to qualify for next season’s Champions League, Roma have a very winnable quarter-final clash with Norwegian minnows Bodo/Glimt. Ironically, the Giallorossi were thrashed 6-1 by Bodo/Glimt in the group stage of the same competition, which will give Mourinho even greater motivation for retribution and a place in the last four.
We’ve already mentioned the second biggest Dutch side, but Feyenoord are also in with a shout of Europa Conference League silverware. Feyenoord currently sit third in the Dutch Eredivisie, seven points behind PSV. However, Arne Slot’s side has a favourable quarter-final draw against Czech opponents Slavia Prague, who narrowly fought their way into the last eight after a dramatic two-legged contest with Austrian side LASK Linz. Feyenoord and Slavia were drawn in the same group earlier in the competition, with Feyenoord winning at home and drawing away. A similar outcome in the last eight would secure a safe passage into the last four and that’s exactly what we are predicting.
We should also nod to Norwegian minnows Bodo/Glimt, who have surpassed all expectations by reaching this stage of the competition. Head coach Kjetil Knutsen has redefined this modest club in the Bodo municipality, with a high-octane style of play that’s sure to entertain the neutrals in the quarterfinals. Whether they can defeat Roma again remains to be seen.