UEFA Europa League draw – thoughts
Bear in mind that this tournament becomes more interesting at this stage of the season as teams have a pretty good idea of where they’re going to finish in their domestic leagues, and some will start to prioritise this competition.
Athletic Club de Bilbao vs APOEL Nicosia
Athletic haven’t taken this tournament seriously as of yet, but I expect them to start now. There is some depth to their squad, but there’s certainly not an alternative for striker, Aduriz, so they’re somewhat handicapped if they wanted to try and win it. Still, they shouldn’t have too many problems in overcoming Cyprus’ giants, APOEL Nicosia. APOEL Nicosia’s glory days are behind them now, and I wasn’t very impressed with what they offered in their other European games this season. One thing in their favour is their composure, but they’re just too laboured in everything that they do for a fast Athletic team to be concerned. I expect the Basque team to progress here.
Legia Warsaw vs AFC Ajax Amsterdam
This should be a really interesting tie. I daresay most people will be on the Ajax wagon here, and that makes sense, I suppose – they are the better team here, after all. However, I seldom trust Ajax as favourites, particularly in European football, and they’re up against a pretty challenging Legia Warsaw side, who had three dreadful UCL games and three epic UCL games in 2016. Both of these teams alternate as to which one of them shows up on a worryingly regular basis, so I don’t want to get sucked into this one. Both of them are capable of progressing here, so I am going to sit this one out.
RSC Anderlecht vs Zenit St.Petersburg
Ordinarily, I’d give Les Mauves a shot at dumping the Russian heavyweights out, but not this time. Anderlecht look pretty average without Praet, especially as Stanciu is still trying to settle in. They’re good enough for a podium finish in Belgium, but I expect a tough opponent like Zenit to be too much for them to handle over two legs. Zenit are not infallible, and Anderlecht do have players that can hurt them. However, under Lucescu, Zenit have looked much more confident and dangerous in attack, and I expect that to be the decider between these two teams.
Astra Giurgiu vs Racing Genk
Astra Giurgiu have adequately proven this season just how hard they actually are to beat, so Racing Genk have their hands full here. I don’t think that the Romanian team are actually a substantial match for them, at least not man-for-man, but when it comes to tactical arrangements, Astra Giurgiu should ensure that this is a very difficult game for the Belgians to win. Bear in mind that Racing Genk’s attack is based on pace, and each of their opponents in their group attacked them, allowing them the space to score goals on the break. Astra Giurgiu will not afford them that opportunity often, I am sure. Tight tie! Racing Genk should progress, but time will tell.
Manchester United vs Saint-Etienne
Bias to one side, I can’t see beyond United progressing here. I like Saint-Etienne but they’re just not doing enough in front of goal this season. Their general control of games is good, and they’re hard to beat on their own patch, but they’re not scoring goals. United are scoring goals now that they’ve gotten used to Mourinho’s approach, and they’re holding leads well too. I find it hard to envision the scenario whereby Saint-Etienne knock Manchester United out, to be frank
Villarreal CF vs AS Roma
AS Roma have the better squad here, but Villarreal CF look solid tactically as a result of Marcelino’s work when he was at the helm. El Submarino Amarillo are likely to want/need this more than AS Roma are, so that additional motivation could be pivotal, particularly as the likelihood is that AS Roma will get a UCL place from their Serie A finishing place. I would cautiously edge toward Villarreal CF progressing here, unless AS Roma have a disastrous January.
Ludogorets Razgrad vs FC Copenhagen
Out of all of the ties, I am looking forward to this one the most. I can’t promise that they’ll be great games, but this is basically the best Ludogorets Razgrad side ever versus the best FC Copenhagen side seen for a long time. The Danes have a better balance to their squad, and look very efficient. However, Ludogorets Razgrad’s attack looks incredibly strong, and I don’t envy the Danes for having to try and keep them at bay. Tactically, FC Copenhagen are better, but Ludogorets Razgrad are more clinical. They could be entertaining meetings, or droll meetings – it all hinges on how the two teams are playing at the time. Tough one to call. If pushed, I’d sidle toward Ludogorets Razgrad.
Celta de Vigo vs Shakhtar Donetsk
When it comes to entertaining ties, this one probably wins “tie of the round” for me. Both of these two teams specialise in attacking, and scoring goals. Shakhtar Donetsk are more experienced at this level, and probably should make it count. However, Celta de Vigo’s lightning pace on the break should not be taken lightly. The Galicians are not quite as clinical as European football requires them to be, which is why I believe that the Ukrainian team will ultimately progress. However, I am not writing Celta de Vigo off as this tournament is likely to be their priority come February time, and they’re far more capable against attacking teams than they are against defensive teams.
Olympiakos Piraeus vs Osmanlispor
Cards galore! Greece and Turkey have a long-standing rivalry, and although Osmanlispor are not one of Turkey’s big teams, we’ve still got a game between an Athens club and an Ankara club. Fireworks are to be expected. With Olympiakos Piraeus having really disappointed me this season, and Osmanlispor’s quick breaks and intelligent tactics having impressed me, I would not be surprised if Osmanlispor edged their more illustrious opponents out. The Turks aren’t too good at the back, but the Greeks haven’t been convincing in attack, so I will give Osmanlispor a tentative nod for this tie. These games are likely to be low-scorers.
AA Gent vs Tottenham Hotspur
AA Gent are a pretty stubborn team, but if Tottenham Hotspur want it enough, they’ll progress here. The London club may still harbour hopes of a top four finish, which will play a huge part into how important this tournament is to them. January and February will be crucial as to deciding which way to jump here. Tottenham Hotspur should progress, but if they rotate their squad, then AA Gent are good enough to handle them. One of those “wait and see” games.
FK Rostov vs Sparta Prague
Sparta Prague are a good and experienced team at this level. However, they’re up against Russia’s FK Rostov, who are one of the most tactically astute teams in the competition. What they lack in personnel, they make up for in togetherness and consistency. This will not be a pleasant game for the Czech juggernauts, who specialise in attacking, but struggle with defending. If this one goes as I expect it to, then FK Rostov will find a way to nudge their way through here.
FK Krasnodar vs Fenerbahce
Another trip for a Turkish team to a country that seemingly doesn’t like them very much. Fenerbahce are the better team here, but FK Krasnodar have lots of quality themselves. Russian teams are generally not known for their attacking prowess, but FK Krasnodar are. Fenerbahce have more tactical intelligence and experience than FK Krasnodar, but the Russians are very good at scoring goals. I believe Fenerbahce will progress, but it could either be a massacre, or a very close tie.
Borussia Moenchengladbach vs Fiorentina
Given their horrendous start to the season, I think the German team have to start taking this tournament seriously. Similarly, Fiorentina just don’t look consistently motivated enough to make anything of themselves in Serie A, so part of me feels that they’ll put more effort into this competition in 2017. Both are very good teams in different ways; Gladbach are quick, clever, and create lots of chances. Fiorentina are measured, classy, and clinical. Which team turns up here is another matter, and I can’t call it, to be honest. Gladbach have a new manager, and Fiorentina are likely to have a new manager by that point too, so there are too many variants here for it to be called now. I expect two very interesting games, though.
AZ Alkmaar vs Olympique Lyonnais
I really don’t think that AZ Alkmaar can expect to square up to Olympique Lyonnais if the French side are interested here. Will they be interested, though? With PSG struggling, the window of opportunity is there for the chasing pack to push for the title, and Olympique Lyonnais are in the mix. January and February will be big months as to whether to back the French side or the Dutch side here. Olympique Lyonnais are inconsistent, but the much better team. AZ Alkmaar are taking this tournament seriously, and playing some very good football, even with limited quality. There should be some interesting games between these two teams.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva vs Besiktas JK
And that’s a third horrible trip for a Turkish team to a country where they are somewhat unpopular. You’d almost think that UEFA had something against them, wouldn’t you? You could be forgiven for thinking that Besiktas JK have the easiest tie of all three Turkish outfits, but I am not so sure. Israeli champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva have reached a new level this season. They look confident, efficient, and very capable. I do fear that they’re not clinical enough for Europe, but they’ve more than coped so far with a double over Internazionale, so Besiktas JK are hardly untouchable to them. Besiktas JK are the better team, and have more match-winners. Realistically, Besiktas JK should progress here. However, they may well turn their attention to the Super Lig, as they’ll be guaranteed a UCL place next season if they do well, whereas Hapoel Be’er Sheva will prioritise this competition. It should be a close tie. Again, January and February will be crucial to decide which way to jump here.
PAOK Salonika vs Schalke 04
Although I like their counter-attacking pace, PAOK Salonika should not be a match for Schalke 04. Schalke 04 should have most of their absent players back by the time this game comes around, and given their fairly unimpressive Bundesliga campaign thus far, I expect Schalke 04 to prioritise this tournament, which is bad news for PAOK Salonika. Against Schalke 04’s “B” team, I would give the Greeks a chance here. Against their first-team, I wouldn’t give them a snowball’s hope in hell. Schalke 04 are not untouchable, but they’re experienced at this level, and they score goals easily enough. I think it’s logical to expect Schalke 04 to progress.
Feel free to post your own thoughts on the draw below!