Europa League

UEFA Europa League 2020/21 Groups G-L Preview: Can Brendan Rodgers’ Foxes and former side Celtic navigate awkward groups?

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 now looks at Groups G to L here.

Event details:

When does the Europa League start?

The 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.

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Europa League Group G:

Braga (Portugal):

Europa League regulars Braga take their place as top seeds of Group G, after a third place finish in Portugal last season, finishing above a lacklustre Sporting Lisbon, hoping to improve on last season’s Last 32 exit to Rangers, after leading 2-0 at Ibrox. Braga have added former Benfica star Nico Gaitan, who has declined since leaving Portugal for Atletico Madrid four years ago, but may flourish in his native country after underwhelming spells in China, France and the US.

Braga were finalists in this competition in 2011, losing an all-Portuguese final to Porto after defeating fellow compatriots Benfica in the semi-finals.

Leicester City (England):

Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester will be devastated at throwing away a huge points advantage to concede a top four spot to Manchester United at the end of the last season, but this is their first taste of European football since their infamous title-winning season of 2015/16. Jamie Vardy is still going strong at 33, finishing as Premier League top scorer, while the Foxes have also added Timothy Castagne from Atalanta and Cengiz Under from Roma.

This will be Leicester’s first ever appearance in the group stage of the competition, they lost in qualification on both previous occasions, to Atletico Madrid in 1997 and Red Star Belgrade in 2000.

AEK Athens (Greece):

After a turbulent start to the decade which saw AEK demoted to the third tier, the Athens-based club are now re-established as European regulars, qualifying for continental football every year since their return to the top flight in 2015/16. AEK have been extremely active in the transfer market, adding 11 new players for the new season, including Iranian international Karim Ansarifard, former-Wolves striker Bright Enobakhare and most notably, Muamer Tankovic, who had an excellent season in Sweden last year.

AEK shocked German side Wolfsburg to make the group stage, winning 2-1 in Athens.

Zorya Luhansk (Ukraine):

Despite coming nowhere close to stopping the duopoly of Ukrainian football held by Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, Zorya have now finished in the European places in each of the last seven seasons. Sadly, the residents of Luhansk must travel over six hours to Zaporizhia to see home games after artillery destroyed their home stadium in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.

Before their seven consecutive Europa League appearances, Zorya only qualified for Europe once, in 1973, after being shock winners of the Soviet First Division, granting them a place in the old European Cup.

Europa League Group H:

Celtic (Scotland):

After making it nine in a row in Scotland last season, Celtic have not enjoyed a great start to the season, losing at home to Ferencvaros in Champions League qualifying and then losing to Rangers in the first Old Firm derby of the season, sees them four point off the pace, and having to settle for a season in the Europa League. Neil Lennon has added notable loan signings in Shane Duffy and Diego Laxalt, while also bringing in Albian Ajeti permanently from West Ham. Keeping hold of Odsonne Edouard may also be crucial to their season.

This is the third season in a row they have dropped into the Europa League after failing in Champions League qualifying, losing to Cluj and AEK Athens in the previous seasons.

Sparta Prague (Czech Republic):

Despite being arguably the most recognisable name in Czech football, Sparta Prague went a sixth season without a title last season, finishing a massive 25 points behind local rivals Slavia. Sparta welcome back Ladislav Krejci, four years after leaving the club for Serie A, and former Slavia defender Ondrej Celustka, but they have lost Zimbabwean defender Costa Nhamoinesu to Indian football.

Sparta have rivals Slavia to thank for their instant group stage qualification, the performance of Slavia in Europe has granted the Czech Republic a higher coefficient ranking, meaning Sparta did not need to qualify, after losing in the qualifiers three years running.

AC Milan (Italy):

An outstanding run of form since football’s restart in June catapulted Stefano Pioli’s AC Milan up into the Europa League places, having been outsiders to make the top six after a very underwhelming start to the Serie A campaign. Big wins over Juventus, Lazio and Roma came on a run which has seen them unbeaten since the league restarted, spanning 20 matches. The signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic has coincided with the sudden upturn in fortunes for the Milanese side, and at the age of 39, the Swedish maverick is proving he can still perform in Europe, after a brief spell in the MLS.

The Rossoneri had to battle through a marathon penalty shootout with Rio Ave to reach the group stage, winning on the 12th round of kicks, but their seven year wait for a Champions League appearance goes on.

Lille (France):

French club Lille round off a very difficult looking group for all involved, as Les Dogues arguably have just as tough a group as they had in the Champions League last season. Lille received a club-record fee for Striker Victor Osimhen off Napoli, and have replaced him with promising Canadian Jonathan David, as he will join another two Jonathan’s, Ikone and Bamba, in the Lille attack.

Lille were also drawn in the ‘Group of Death’ in their last appearance in the competition in 2014/15, when they faced Everton, Wolfsburg and Krasnodar.

Europa League Group I:

Villarreal (Spain):

A side delighted to have avoided any lower seeded big boys are Villarreal, and depending on how seriously Unai Emery will take the competition, it looks relatively straight-forward for his new club. Club legend Santi Cazorla has left for the Middle East after a successful second spell at the club, but the signing of Dani Parejo on a free from Valencia is one of the best pieces of business made by any side in Europe this summer. He joins a squad already containing Spanish duo Paco Alcacer and Gerard Moreno, both capped internationally recently, and Japanese prodigy Takefusa Kubo, who has joined on loan from Real Madrid.

The Yellow Submarine have a 100% record in progressing through from the Europa League group stage.

Qarabag (Azerbaijan):

The club from the uninhabited Agdam made it seven Azeri titles in a row last season, despite playing over 200 miles away in Baku at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, named after ‘that’ linesman from the 1966 World Cup final, because of the troubles in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which left their hometown destroyed. Qarabag lost the influential pair of Richard Almeida and Dani Quintana last season, but Azeri international Mahir Emreli is their new danger man in attack.

This is the seventh season running where Qarabag have continued their European run into the Autumn, but none were more memorable than drawing home and away with Atletico Madrid in 2017.

Maccabi Tel-Aviv (Israel):

The champions of Israel won three rounds of Champions League qualifying only to be knocked out in the playoff by RB Salzburg this season, meaning it is now five years since they last made the group stage of the competition. Journeyman Nick Blackman, born in Salford, is the main goalscorer for the side, alongside former Swansea loanee Itay Shechter.

Maccabi suffered two embarrassing defeats in the last two seasons which saw them knocked out of the Europa League, losing to Suduva Marijampole of Lithuania and Sarpsborg of Norway.

Sivasspor (Turkey): 

Sivasspor took advantage of the calamitous seasons of the Istanbul elite in Turkey, being the nation’s only representative, after Fenerbahce failed to even make the qualifiers and Besiktas and Galatasaray fell to Rio Ave and Rangers, respectively. Former Premier League players Arouna Kone and Max Gradel are the key players for Riza Calimbay’s side and will need to perform well if they stand a chance in this Europa League group.

This is Sivasspor’s debut in the group stage of a European competition, despite coming second in Turkey in 2009, they lost in qualifying in both competitions.

Europa League Group J:

Tottenham Hotspur (England):

Just months after reaching the Champions League final, Tottenham sacked Mauricio Pochettino after some woeful results, including that 7-2 drubbing by Bayern Munich. Jose Mourinho came in and led Spurs to a sixth place finish, pipping Wolves to a Europa League spot on the last day. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min are the side’s major threats, but they have also drafted Gareth Bale into what could be an unstoppable attack.

Two-time winners Tottenham were given a scare in the second qualifying round, losing with ten minutes to go against Lokomotiv Plovdiv, they came back to beat the 9-men late on.

Ludogorets (Bulgaria):

After gaining promotion to the Bulgarian top-flight in 2011, Ludogorets won the title at the first attempt, and have remarkably won every title since, and becoming European regulars, playing in their sixth group stage in seven seasons. The spine of the team have been constant for many years now, Vladislav Stoyanov in goal, Cosmin Moti at the back, Wanderson in midfield and Claudiu Keseru up front.

When they qualified for their Champions League debut in 2014/15, Moti went in goal after Stoyanov was sent off against Steaua Bucharest in the playoff, making a match-winning save in the resulting penalty shootout.

LASK (Austria):

LASK only finished fourth domestically last season, but they went further in Europe than any other Austrian club, technically still in the Europa League for the finale in August even though the tie was over after losing the home leg of their Last 16 clash with Manchester United, 5-0. Marko Raguz got five goals in Europe but overall top scorer Joao Klauss has returned to Hoffenheim, the signing of Maximilian Eggestein from Werder Bremen is a notable income.

LASK won 4-1 away to Sporting Lisbon to qualify, arguably the most impressive result in the round, after also beating them 3-0 in the group stage last season.

Antwerp (Belgium):

Despite losing their status as a regular top division club in Belgium recently, Antwerp were shock Belgian Cup winners and were rewarded with a maiden Europa League group stage spot. Lior Refaelov and Dieumerci Mbokani, both 34, are fully fledged top-flight Belgian league players, spending nearly a decade each in the country, and are the two key players for Antwerp in attack.

This will be their first appearance in any European competition since the mid-1990s.

Europa League Group K:

CSKA Moscow (Russia):

An underwhelming season in Russia saw CSKA finish fourth, 22 points behind champions Zenit, but they still qualified for a 19th consecutive European campaign. Two of Russia’s 2018 World Cup heroes Igor Akinfeev and Mario Fernandes are still going strong into their 30s, while the main offensive threat comes via former-Everton man Nikola Vlasic.

CSKA were the first Russian side to win a major European competition when they won the UEFA Cup in 2005, defeating Sporting Lisbon in the final.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia):

The capital club made it 14 titles in 15 seasons, as Dinamo Zagreb finished 15 points ahead of city rivals Lokomotiva in Croatia last season. They have lost Josko Gvardiol for big money to Leipzig, but the stream of Croatian youngsters always come through from Dinamo so he will likely be replaced by another academy product while internationals Bruno Petkovic and Mislav Orsic are the two danger men.

After not seeing much European football when part of Yugoslavia, Dinamo have been regulars recently, including five Champions League group stage appearances in the last nine years. They will settle for Europa League action this season.

Feyenoord (Netherlands):

After a brief spell in mid-table obscurity a decade ago, Feyenoord once more look like a side worthy of competing with the big boys of Dutch football, Ajax and PSV, finishing above the latter last season. Dutch international Steven Berghuis has six in five league games already and the captain is the man to watch, but look out for Orkun Kokcu, who could make a breakthrough this season at 19.

Feyenoord have a rich history in Europe, with a European Cup and two UEFA Cup’s in the cabinet, most recently winning in 2002 over Dortmund.

Wolfsberger (Austria):

One of last year’s debutants in this competition, Wolfsberger of Austria, makes another appearance this time around, going further than their German namesakes who lost in qualifying. Serbian youngster Dejan Joveljic has arrived on loan from Frankfurt and will be the goal threat, already bagging two in his first four for his new club.

Wolfsberger achieved a stunning 4-0 win away to Borussia Monchengladbach in the group stage last season, that being their only win in a very tough group which also included Roma and Istanbul Basaksehir.

Europa League Group L:

Gent (Belgium):

Gent may be a long way away from the side that miraculously made the knockout stages of the Champions League five years ago, but they were the second best team in Belgium last season, finishing above the likes of Genk, Standard Liege and Anderlecht. Wim De Decker has lost key man Jonathan David for a big fee and didn’t replace him with a new signing, but they do have Giorgi Chakvetadze to pull the strings and Ukrainian international Roman Yaremchuk up front.

Gent played an eye-watering 14 Europa League games last season and still only made it to the Last 32, losing out to Roma.

Red Star Belgrade (Serbia):

After back-to-back bottom place finishes in Champions League groups, Red Star are back in the Europa League, despite being champions of Serbia, after suffering a shock defeat to Omonia in qualifying. El Fardou Ben Nabouhane and Diego Falcinelli have both started in great scoring form and Aleksandar Katai has joined on a free after being released by LA Galaxy after his wife made some unsavory comments on social media, forcing the club to terminate his contract, despite being a top performer for previous club Chicago Fire.

Red Star were European Cup winners in 1991 and made headlines more recently for beating Liverpool in Belgrade during their Champions League winning campaign two seasons ago.

Hoffenheim (Germany):

After a year away, Hoffenheim are back on the European scene, this time in the Europa League thanks to a sixth place finish in the Bundesliga. Striker Andrej Kramaric has been in sensational form since the back end of the last season, scoring 13 times in his last six competitive games for the side, including a brace in their eyebrow-raising 4-1 win over European champions Bayern Munich in September. Hoffenheim have also added Ryan Sessegnon and Sebastian Rudy on loan from Tottenham Hotspur and Schalke respectively, to bolster what is already a very exciting side.

In what has been a slightly turbulent spell for the club, qualifying for Europe for a third time in four years though, suggests that Hoffenheim are becoming one of the regular clubs challenging the big boys in Germany.

Slovan Liberec (Czech Republic):

In a unique league system, Slovan had to beat Mlada Boleslav in a 5-team playoff tournament in the Czech Republic just to enter the second qualifying round of the Europa League, but to their credit, they came through all qualifying rounds successfully. Former Juventus man Jakub Hromada may be key in midfield as one of two loanees from Slavia Prague, the other being current top scorer Abdulla Yusuf.

This is their first appearance since 2016, when they finished bottom and were eliminated.

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