UEFA Europa League Group Stage Draw – Reaction!
As ever, the UEFA Europa League is a landmine for bettors everywhere as everybody desperately tries to figure out which teams are interested in it, and which teams aren’t. There’s the additional dynamic to this tournament now whereby teams can become interested in it in the second-half of the season if their domestic campaigns aren’t going well, as the winner will be granted a place in the UCL next season. It’s always an interesting tournament, though, so let’s take a peek at what is awaiting us, shall we?
Group A – Manchester United, Fenerbahce, Feyenoord Rotterdam, Zorya Lugansk
My beloved Manchester United have been dealt a pretty grim group in this year’s UEL. I honestly don’t believe that Mourinho will care for this tournament, he wants a top four EPL place, and that means the “B” team plays on Thursday nights. Now, I believe that my team are good enough to go through with their “B” team, although I doubt it’ll be convincing if they do, but the value should be in opposing United because of their lack of interest in the tournament. Zorya Lugansk and Feyenoord Rotterdam should definitely be taking this tournament seriously. Fenerbahce may, but I think that their main aim has to be winning the Super Lig. Fenerbahce and Feyenoord away are two very difficult away games in intense atmospheres, so nothing is certain in this group. Quality-wise, there’s very little between Feyenoord and Fenerbahce, so either of them could qualify here. Zorya Lugansk are going to be the whipping boys, although be wary of away games in Ukraine in winter for obvious reasons. This group will be very special for Robin van Persie, incidentally, as the Fenerbahce striker will line up against his boyhood club, Feyenoord, and his former club, Manchester United, who both remember him fondly.
Group B – Young Boys Bern, Olympiakos Piraeus, FK Astana, APOEL Nicosia
Out of all of the groups, I think that this one interests me the most. Every team in it should prioritise it because the only team with any justification not to is Olympiakos Piraeus because they know that they can get a UCL place from winning the Greek Super League. However, Olympiakos always win the Super League, so they shouldn’t turn their noses up at the UEL. Greece’s biggest club facing Cyprus’ biggest club is bound to produce fireworks, so be wary of that. APOEL Nicosia are slow, but good on the ball, and are far better than they’re given credit for. Olympiakos are the best team in the group, but they’ve not looked good so far this season. FK Astana are a very underrated team, and absolutely nobody is going to relish that hellish journey east to face them, particularly as they’re very good at hurting teams down the flanks. Young Boys Bern only make this group even more interesting because of their relentless desire to attack, and their inability to defend. They’re very good, though, particularly at home on their artificial turf, and they’re more than capable of handling the teams in this group. Again, this is a very interesting group, and I can’t even begin to pick teams that will qualify from it.
Group C – Anderlecht, Saint-Etienne, Mainz 05, Qabala
Part of me wonders if Anderlecht will shun the UEL this season because of their continued domestic failures. They’ve also lost some really important players pre-season, so I am unsure as to what they’re going to do. If they’re serious, then they’ll make this group very interesting. If they’re not, then they won’t. Saint-Etienne and Mainz 05 are of a similar level, and I expect both of them to take this tournament very seriously, because neither of them will finish in the UCL places domestically, and the same can be said of Qabala in Azerbaijan, although I don’t honestly know how likely it is that they’ll finish in the Azeri UCL places!! Qabala are better than they’re given credit for, though, and I am curious to see if it shows in this group or not. Saint-Etienne and Mainz 05 are far from infallible, after all, and Mainz 05 in particular have a very threadbare squad. There are some very close-knit and passionate teams in this group, though, which makes me intrigued by it. I can’t call it in terms of progression, but I expect entertainment.
Group D – Dundalk, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, AZ Alkmaar, Zenit St.Petersburg
Zenit will be the favourites from this group, but based on what I have seen from them so far under Lucescu, I am not convinced. They’re just not a very “European” team nowadays, if that makes sense. On paper, they’re the best team in the group, but in reality, they’re up against a lot of feisty and capable teams, and that doesn’t suit them at all. Maccabi Tel-Aviv and AZ Alkmaar look weak at the back, as per usual, but both have strong attacks. Dundalk are the unknown factor, bringing in plenty of fight and belief, although whether they can score goals against their other group members remains to be seen. I expect a weirdly entertaining group between teams that aren’t particularly good, and I don’t see any of them really having anything to lose by going for the UEL this season.
Group E – Astra Giurgiu, Austria Vienna, AS Roma, Viktoria Plzen
I think it’s fair to say that AS Roma will forsake their participation in the UEL in favour of a UCL place next season, which is more than within their reach, so don’t expect them to take this seriously. Their three opponents will, though. Whether they can oust AS Roma’s “B” team or not remains to be seen, however, because none of them are very good nowadays. Plzen have been disappointing in the current campaign, and even a recent flurry of signings hasn’t convinced me that they’re anywhere near their old level. Austria Vienna are a particularly poor side that I have next to no faith in. Nullify their counter-attacking pace, and you won’t see them for dust. Still, it’s hard to say that they’re the worst team because battlers Astra Giurgiu aren’t very good either, with very little to offer in the way of unpredictability. Again, I expect an interesting group here purely because the best team in it doesn’t care, and there isn’t much between the other three. I’m not able to say who will make it out of this group, though!
Group F – Athletic Club de Bilbao, Racing Genk, Sassuolo, Rapid Vienna
I think you could do a lot worse than backing Sassuolo to win the UEL this season. They’re not the best team in it, but out of all of the teams in it that want to be in it, I reckon that they’re up there. They play a very attractive style of football and have played very well so far this season. They’ll priority this tournament, unlike the other Italian teams, and they’re good enough to hurt teams. Don’t underestimate them! Athletic tend to disappoint me in Europe, but they shouldn’t be underestimated either; very good on the ball, and very fast too, although they’re horribly short of a backup striker when Aduriz is out. Genk have more to offer than is visible, and the same can be said for Rapid Vienna, particularly with such strong support behind them. On paper, I think it’s fair to say that Rapid are the weakest side in the group, but you’d never know it from playing against them. This is another very interesting group between similar level teams, and although I am fairly confident that Sassuolo will make it through, I am really not sure about the other team, particularly as Athletic don’t tend to take this competition seriously nowadays.
Group G – Celta de Vigo, Panathinaikos, Standard de Liege, AFC Ajax Amsterdam
Well, isn’t this a peachy group of under-achievers, eh? Aside from Panathinaikos, whom I like a lot right now because of their consistency and work-rate. Ajax have been dreadful this season in everything that they’ve done, and it’s looking less and less likely that Bosz has a future at the club. Celta de Vigo lost main attacker Nolito pre-season, and have been unable to replace him adequately, so they won’t find this group easy. Standard de Liege are as average as ever, although they do seem to have special powers of survival in their home games. Standard vs Ajax is something of a derby; I expect that to kick off. This looks a pretty feisty group, to be frank – cards are the name of the game here. Predicting teams to go through is a nightmare here, though. I believe that Panathinaikos will manage it, but as for the others – it’s a lottery.
Group H – AA Gent, Konyaspor, Sporting Braga, Shakhtar Donetsk
Shakhtar Donetsk and Sporting Braga aren’t as good as they were, but both sides are very experienced in Europe, and it tends to show. Still, this is a tricky group for both of them with Konyaspor looking very good, and AA Gent presenting numerous options that makes them hard to handle. Konyaspor’s strength stems from their excellent manager, and Turkish teams are never easy to face at home for obvious reasons. Gent’s defence is going to cause them a lot of problems in this group, but their attack may just bail them out; they’ve imposed themselves rather well thus far. Don’t lose sight of the fact that Shakhtar are losing more and more players as time goes by that they cannot replace; they’re really not that good any more. I would put them on a par with Braga, actually. Both will probably fight their way out of this group, but I’d be really surprised if it was done convincingly.
Group I – FK Krasnodar, OGC Nice, Schalke 04, Salzburg
Bluntly put, I expect OGC Nice to struggle to stay in Ligue 1 this season, following their pre-season departures, and that makes me think that they may not take this competition seriously, particularly with their thin squad. Even if they do, they’re simply not a very good side right now, so I don’t see them making it out of this group alive. FK Krasnodar are a really impressive side, though – they play good football, score goals very easily, and win games convincingly. They are the most un-Russian side out there right now, and they’re to be taken very seriously indeed. Schalke 04 are favourites to get out of this group, and I have to confess that I’d be surprised if they didn’t make it. I still find it hard to trust them, though – too many youngsters, and too inconsistent for my liking. Salzburg are still a handful but they find it harder to score goals than they used to. Ordinarily, that’s not such a big issue for them, but they’re in a group with at least two teams that score goals far more easily than they do, and that puts them in a precarious position. Schalke 04 and FK Krasnodar should make it out of this group, but I am sure that Salzburg will run them close.
Group J – Fiorentina, PAOK Salonika, Qarabagh FK, Slovan Liberec
Fiorentina are a bit too cocky to take this tournament seriously, but to be honest, if their “B” team doesn’t get them through this group, then they should be very disappointed in themselves. PAOK Salonika, like all Salonika clubs, are a nightmare to face at home. Qarabagh FK are better than they’re given credit for, and they’re very experienced in Europe nowadays, and thus are not to be underestimated. Slovan Liberec look very weak for this level, even with strong levels of organisation. None of those teams should really trouble Fiorentina, though, even with a “B” team on show. I am curious as to whether Qarabagh or PAOK claim the other place, though, because there’s very little between them. Apologies to any Slovan Liberec fans, but if they get anything out of this group, I will be extremely surprised.
Group K – Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Southampton, Internazionale, Sparta Prague
This should be a very fun group to watch. Soulless Internazionale are the best side in it, but they never play well as a group, and a new manager is only going to accentuate their lack of cohesion. I don’t trust their “B” team one little bit; not in a group like this. As much as I respect Southampton in the English Premier League, I just don’t trust them in Europe. I think that they lack creativity and ease on the ball, and that’s why they struggle in Europe. Additionally, chances are very strong that they’ll get more from a high EPL finish than they will from a UEL win, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they fielded a “B” team in this competition. Sparta Prague should take great hope from that, but they’ve been really disappointing so far this season, and I find it harder than ever to trust them, especially after embarrassing themselves against Steaua Bucharest. Truth be told, the team I like most in this group is Israeli champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva, who were a mere spot-kick away from dumping Celtic out of the UCL. They may be shoddy defensively, but they’re very strong in attack, and I reckon they may just cause a couple of shocks here. Interesting group!
Group L – Osmanlispor, Villarreal CF, FC Zurich, Steaua Bucharest
If Marcelino was still in charge of Villarreal CF, I’d probably back them to win every game. However, it’s not him; it’s inexperienced Escriba, and that makes this group a shade more open. I still think that the Spaniards should go through, but I doubt it’ll be convincingly because Villarreal CF can only be managed well by certain managers, and Escriba is not one of them. Additionally, you have to consider the possibility that they won’t take this competition seriously because a top four finish is apparently not impossible for them (although it is impossible, in my view). It could become a very level playing field, really. Don’t read much into FC Zurich being a second division team in Switzerland. They were stupid; that’s what sent them down. In reality, they’re as good as they have been for the past two years, so they’re still capable of playing well. They look very solid at the moment, and although they’re going to lack quality at this level, their opponents are hardly flushed with quality themselves, so the Swiss team can surprise here. Steaua Bucharest have a good chance to progress because of how hard they fight, and how strong they are in terms of cohesion. Osmanlispor are an “unknown”, apparently, but I like them a lot. They play football quickly, and directly – and they’re good at it. Like almost all Turkish teams, they waste far too many chances, but they’re very easy on the eye, and should not be underestimated. This is actually a very interesting group, and I daren’t pick anyone to qualify from it.