Europe’s second tier competition returns for its final season as a 48-team tournament before it is trimmed down to 32-team event next year, and we’re sure there will be just as many memorable moments and shocks that we’ve become accustomed to in the Europa League. In a bumper two-part preview, Andrew Delaney first looks at Groups A to F here.
When does the Europa League start?
The Europa League Group Stage begins on Thursday 22nd October 2020
What is the Europa League schedule?
22/10/2020 – Matchday 1
29/10/2020 – Matchday 2
05/11/2020 – Matchday 3
26/11/2020 – Matchday 4
03/12/2020 – Matchday 5
10/12/2020 – Matchday 6
18/02/2021 & 25/02/2021 – Round of 32
11/03/2021 & 18/03/2021 – Round of 16
08/04/2021 & 15/04/2021 – Quarter-finals
29/04/2021 & 06/05/2021 – Semi-finals
26/05/2021 – Final
Where is the Europa League final taking place?
Stadion Energa Gdańsk, Gdańsk, Poland
Who won last season’s Europa League?
Sevilla won a record sixth Europa League title last season, defeating Inter Milan 3-2 in the final after also seeing off the likes of Manchester United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Roma in earlier rounds. They will compete in the Champions League this season thanks to their success in the competition.
Europa League Group A:
Paulo Fonseca’s side will be disappointed to be spending another season in the Europa League as opposed to the Champions League, but they have one of the strongest sides in the competition. They have kept hold of Edin Dzeko after it looked certain he was off to Juventus and the Giallorossi made Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Chris Smalling’s loan moves permanent, while also adding Pedro on a free from Chelsea.
Roma were knocked out at the Last 16 stage by eventual winners Sevilla last season, and were Champions League semi-finalists in 2017/18.
Young Boys (Switzerland):
Young Boys have firmly overtaken Basel as top dogs in Switzerland recently, winning the domestic league three seasons running. Striker Jean Pierre Nsame broke a domestic record by scoring 32 league goals in their successful campaign last season, filling the boots of outgoing legend Guillaume Hoarau.
Despite Young Boys’ dominance domestically, they still only have one Champions League group stage appearance, and fell in the Third Qualifying Round this season to Midtjylland.
Like Young Boys, Cluj also have three consecutive domestic titles to their name in Romania. Talisman Ciprian Deac leads the side from Transylvania, who scored 14 and set up nine in the Liga I last season as they won the league by five points from the nearest challengers Universitatea Craiova.
Cluj have had some memorable moments in their somewhat brief European history, including winning at Old Trafford in the 2012/13 Champions League, and winning 4-3 at Celtic Park last season to knock the SPFL winners out of Champions League qualifying.
CSKA Sofia (Bulgaria):
A former giant of Eastern European football, CSKA Sofia, return to European competition for the first time in a decade as the lowest ranked side in the competition. The Bulgarians sparked a tremendous shock, knocking out Basel in the playoffs with two late goals in a 3-1 win in Switzerland to book their place in the group stage. This will surely be one step too far for Stamen Belchev’s side, though.
They may not have played in Europe since a poor Europa League showing in 2010, but the Army team of Bulgaria reached two European Cup semi-finals in 1967 and 1982.
Europa League Group B:
Mikel Arteta’s mid-season appointment has filled Arsenal fans with much belief, having delivered an FA Cup trophy in his first half-season as a manager, and they will hope to use this competition as a stepping stone to reach next season’s Champions League. Star man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang committed his future to Arsenal over the summer and there have been new signings aplenty at the Emirates, with Willian, Gabriel and Thomas Partey all joining the London club.
Arsenal were memorably knocked out by Olympiakos in the Last 32 last season, conceding a 120th minute winner to Youseff El Arabi at the Emirates, after being losing finalists the season before to rivals Chelsea.
Rapid Vienna (Austria):
Austrian Bundesliga runners-up Rapid Vienna are one of three Austrian representatives in the group phase, and will be aiming to replicate the performance of fellow countrymen LASK Linz, who made it to the Last 16 last season. Greek international Taxiarchis Fountas is their key player, already bagging four goals from four league games this season, after finding the net 19 times in the last campaign.
Rapid have made it past the Europa League group stage twice in their previous three appearances, but suffered heavy aggregate defeats to Valencia (10-0) and Inter (5-0) in the Last 32.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s former club may be 19 points adrift of Bodo/Glimt in the Eliteserien in Norway, but they were very unlucky to be knocked out at the last stage of Champions League qualifying, on away goals to Ferencvaros. However, they will still be pleased with a first European group stage appearance in five years. Playmaker and former Manchester United youth product, Magnus Wolff Eikrem is the key man for the Norwegian champions, he has racked up 17 caps for Norway since his debut in 2012.
On their last appearance, they surprisingly won their group, which contained Ajax, Celtic and Fenerbahce before bowing out to Sevilla in the Last 32.
Dundalk (Republic of Ireland):
Reigning Irish champions Dundalk will compete in a Europa League group stage for just the second time, after coming through three knockout rounds to earn a lucrative place in the Europa League. Veteran striker Patrick Hoban is still going strong at 37, with nine goals in ten already this season, as well as two assists in the playoff win over KI Klaksvik.
In their only other group stage appearance, they registered just four points, but picked up a noteworthy draw away to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar.
Europa League Group C:
Bayer Leverkusen (Germany):
Last season’s quarter-finalists Bayer Leverkusen are the top seeded outfit in Europa League Group C, as the fifth-placed side in the Bundesliga look to prolong their stay in Europe this season. Patrik Schick has been bought to replace the outgoing Kevin Volland, but despite receiving upwards of £80million for Kai Havertz, they did not sign a direct replacement for him. Peter Bosz still has Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby to provide quality for the German club.
Leverkusen’s most notable achievement was reaching the 2002 Champions League final, but they were also winners of this competition in 1988.
Slavia Prague (Czech Republic):
After much turmoil at the start of the decade, Czech champions Slavia are well and truly the team to beat domestically, having now won back-to-back titles. They earned plaudits for registering two very impressive draws away to Inter and Barcelona in last season’s Champions League, as well as scoring three at Stamford Bridge in a Europa League quarter-final the year previously. They have since lost first team players Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal, both to West Ham, though.
Slavia were six minutes away from making the Champions League group stage, before imploding in the last moments against Midtjylland and losing 4-1.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva (Israel):
After coming through four qualifying rounds, including a surprise win over Viktoria Plzen, Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva will take part in the competition proper for the third time. They may not be as strong as when they won three straight domestic titles a few years ago, but they have become European regulars of late. Their top scorer for the past four seasons, Ben Sahar, has left the club to join APOEL, so there is a void still to be filled.
In their debut group stage appearance, Hapoel beat Italian giants Inter home and away, as well drawing in both ties with Southampton.
Patrick Vieira’s Nice enter straight in at the Europa League group stage after coming fifth in the unfinished Ligue 1 season. The side from the Cote d’Azur have made two shrewd loan signings in the form of Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Rony Lopes from Lyon and Sevilla respectively, while also having Kasper Dolberg in attack, the former youth prodigy from Ajax.
This is their first European adventure for three years, after bowing out to Lokomotiv Moscow in their last campaign on the continent.
Europa League Group D:
After throwing away a healthy advantage at the top of the Liga NOS thanks to poor results against Tondela, Portimonense, Santa Clara and Maritimo, Benfica also blew the chance of playing Champions League football, after losing to PAOK in the qualifiers. They have significantly strengthened their squad though, adding Everton Soares, Luca Waldschmidt, Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi, despite losing Ruben Dias and Carlos Vinicius to Premier League clubs.
Benfica have lost both continental finals they have played since the turn of the millennium, in 2013 to Chelsea and in 2014 to Sevilla.
Standard Liege (Belgium):
After a brief spell as the top club in Belgium, Standard Liege no longer seriously threaten top spot in the Jupiler League, but have established themselves as European regulars over the past two decades. Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez and Maxime Lestienne are the two key men for the side, usually operating from wide areas.
Standard have failed to progress past the Europa League group phase in their last five appearances in this competition.
Steven Gerrard’s Rangers still got nowhere near ending Celtic’s domination of the Scottish Premiership last season, but their Europa League run gave the supporters plenty of reasons to be optimistic ahead of their next venture across the continent. Ianis Hagi joined the club permanently over the summer, and it was his double that helped see off Braga in the Last 32 last season.
Rangers beat Turkish giants Galatasaray to confirm a third consecutive Europa League group stage appearance, after losing to Progres Niederkorn of Luxembourg on their return to European football in 2017.
Lech Poznan (Poland):
Polish runners-up Lech Poznan enter the group stage for just a second time in ten years after coming through four rounds of qualifying, finishing off with a win over Charleroi in the playoff. New signing Mikael Ishak, brought in from Nuremberg, looks to be the primary threat, already scoring four in his first four league games.
They will hope for a more entertaining campaign compared to their last, in 2015, when they scored just 2 goals in 6 games, amazingly, both away to Fiorentina, as they finished with five points.
Europa League Group E:
One of the Dutch elite, PSV Eindhoven continue their astonishing run of qualifying for European football every season since 1974. This year, though, they will have to make-do with Europa League football after a few forays into the Champions League in recent years. PSV have been active in the market, bringing in World Cup winner Mario Gotze and Phillip Max from German football, and Israeli striker Eran Zahavi, who has spent the last seven years in his native country and China, scoring almost a goal every game.
PSV crashed out at this stage last season, a 4-1 loss in Linz against LASK being a notable reason for that.
After going unbeaten when crowned champions of Greece in 2018/19, PAOK succumbed to Olympiakos and surrendered their title last season, and also failed to achieve qualification to the Champions League last month. Bringing in Andrija Zivkovic from Benfica was a bit of a coup for PAOK, and acquiring the services of Moussa Wague on loan from Barcelona. They have lost promising youngster Dimitrios Limnios to Cologne, though.
Their last appearance in this competition saw them eliminated with a dismal three points from six games, and they have never made it past the first knockout round.
One of this season’s European debutants surprisingly come from Spain, in the form of Granada, who earned their place in the Europa League group phase after a seventh place finish in La Liga and wins over Teuta, Lokomotiv Tbilisi and Malmo in qualifying. They were the dark horse of the season in Spain, finishing in the European places in their first season back after promotion, an achievement rarely seen in the top five leagues.
Despite never playing continental football before, the squad does contain players who have played at this level before, such as Roberto Soldado, formerly of Tottenham, and Maxime Gonalons.
Omonia Nicosia (Cyprus):
After some massive wins in Champions League qualifying over Legia Warsaw and Red Star Belgrade, Cypriot champions Omonia finally fell at the final hurdle against Olympiakos in neighbouring Greece, but they still find themselves in European competition proper for the first time in the club’s 72-year history. Omonia had the cancellation of the Cypriot First League to thank for their first title in ten years, as they won it on a head-to-head record over Anorthosis Famagusta.
Like Granada, despite being debutants, their squad is full of European experience, including Tomas Hubocan, Eric Bautheac, Michal Duris and former Wigan midfielder Jordi Gomez.
Europa League Group F:
After off-field troubles disrupted Napoli’s season, Carlo Ancelotti was relieved of his duties midway through last season and replaced by Gennaro Gattuso. The 2006 World Cup winner had a positive impact on the camp though, improving the Azzurri’s fortunes in hauling them into the European places while also winning their first piece of silverware in six years with Coppa Italia success over Juventus. They have lost Allan to Everton, but replaced him with Tiemoue Bakayoko and also added Victor Osimhen from Lille for a club-record €70million.
Napoli were winners of this competition in 1989, in the glory days of Maradona, but the closest they have been to repeating that was in 2014/15, when they suffered a shock semi-final defeat to Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk of Ukraine.
Real Sociedad (Spain):
A real dark horse for this year’s competition may be Real Sociedad. The Basque club have assembled a very exciting squad, including both youth and experience, as they finished sixth in Spain, qualifying for Europe for just the fourth time in 16 years. The big name signing was David Silva, brought in on a free from Manchester City, and he joins a potent attack including Mikel Oyarzabal, Portu and Adnan Januzaj. Losing Martin Odegaard back to Real Madrid may be a notable loss though.
This is their first venture back in Europe since 2017/18, when RB Salzburg knocked them out at the Last 32 stage.
AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands):
AZ felt hard-done by when the Eredivisie season ceased to be completed in the Spring, considering they were level on points with Ajax at the top of the table, and had just beaten the Amsterdam side away from home a week before football was halted. Myron Boadu, Oussama Idrissi and Teun Koopmeiners were instrumental in their title challenge, and they have held on to two-thirds of that trio, with just Idrissi moving on to pastures new, signing for Sevilla.
Unfortunately for them, Ajax’s superior goal difference saw them given the title and condemned AZ to Champions League qualification instead, something they could not overcome, losing away to Dynamo Kiev in the third qualifying round.
After being merely a mid-table club since Croatia gained independence, Rijeka have firmly established themselves as the closest side to stopping Dinamo Zagreb’s usual dominance of the Croatian domestic league, which they did when they won the title in 2016/17, the only other side to have done so in 15 years. They have finished in the top three every season since 2012/13, but do not have the likes of Andrej Kramaric or Mario Gavranovic in attack anymore.
On their three previous Europa League group stage appearances, Rijeka have fallen at this hurdle each time, and may struggle again in what is a tough Europa League group.
Who are the favourites for the Europa League?
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