Europa League Restart

There are European heavyweights in the 2020-21 Europa League, and continental dark horses. David Whitworth runs down the 50th edition of a tournament that promises plenty of drama…

Golden years

As the 2020-21 season develops intriguing narratives and delivers brilliant, if socially distant, action on the pitch, eager supporters across the globe will tune in to the exciting European clashes that await on the horizon. In particular, this season’s Europa League promises great entertainment, with many thrills and spills.

This will be the 50th edition of the UEFA Cup / Europa League, and this year’s half century campaign promises to be fiercely contested. Featuring this season are the likes of the English contingent – made up of beaten finalists of two years ago Arsenal, their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City. Also appearing are the historic Italian trio of Milan, Napoli and Roma. Bayer Leverkusen, Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg make up the German contenders from the Bundesliga, while in La Liga, a hot bed of previous champions, it is Real Sociedad, Villarreal and Granada who will be flying the Spanish flag.

All in all, 213 teams have embarked on their European journey from the early rounds, with teams represented from all 55 UEFA member associations, dreaming of lifting the prestigious trophy next May at the Stadion Energa Gdańsk in Poland.

Europa League specialists and current champions Sevilla claimed the trophy for the fifth time at the end of the 2019-20 tournament, delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Andalusians eventually overcame the Italians of Inter 3-2 in a thrilling final. But who will have their name etched onto the famous cup this time around?

Group A: Roma, Young Boys, CFR Cluj, CSKA Sofia

Roma will start heavy favourites from this group and bolstered their ranks with the signings of Pedro Rodriguez, Borja Mayoral and Chris Smalling on transfer deadline day. The Lupi, led by Paulo Fonseca, have been handed a kind draw, although Swiss outfit Young Boys have the potential to provide an upset.

Group B: Arsenal, Rapid Vienna, Molde, Dundalk

Arsenal are a club rejuvenated under the tutelage of Mikel Arteta and are flourishing after winning last season’s FA Cup and this season’s Community Shield curtain raiser over Premier League champions Liverpool. The confirmation of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang extending his contract has further created a feel-good factor for the Gunners. They are one of the favourites to lift the cup and their draw should not pose too many obstacles.

Group C: Bayer Leverkusen, Slavia Prague, Hapoel Beer-Sheva, Nice

A group of dark horses. Leverkusen lost their young starlet Kai Havertz to Chelsea so this group may not be as straightforward on first reflection. Nice, coached by Patrick Vieira, have a decent team and possess the striking prowess of Kasper Dolberg, who reached the final of this competition with Ajax in 2017. But any of the four could progress.

Group D: Benfica, Standard Liège, Rangers, Lech Poznań

A wild card bet to go deep in the tournament could lie with the Eagles of Benfica. Coached by the experienced Jorge Jesús, they have reinforced well with defensive stalwarts Jan Vertonghen and Nicolás Otamendi arriving from the Premier League. In turn, Rangers will gauge how much progress they have made from this group draw. Steven Gerrard’s men progressed to the group stage after impressively overcoming Galatasaray.

Group E: PSV Eindhoven, PAOK, Granada, Omonoia

Granada make their debut in the Europa League on the back of an impressive last season, finishing seventh in La Liga. They will have youthful exuberance for their first European campaign, yet boast vast experience with veteran forwards Roberto Soldado and Jorge Molina in their ranks. The Andalusians will back themselves to topple the more European streetwise PSV Eindhoven. The Dutch side brought in German World Cup winner Mario Götze and will hope for some continental inspiration from the attacking midfielder.

Group F: Napoli, Real Sociedad, AZ Alkmaar, Rijeka

Napoli are a team revitalized under Gennaro Gattuso, and possess a quality unit capable of going to the later stages of the tournament. Much can be said too for the San Sebastián outfit Real Sociedad, who acquired one of the signings of the summer in bringing the magically gifted David Silva back to his homeland.

Group G: Braga, Leicester, AEK Athens, Zorya Luhansk

Brendon Rodgers’ side narrowly missed out on the Champions League, but will enjoy their European adventure. The creativity of James Maddison and the goals of Jamie Vardy give the Foxes a fighting chance and should progress through Group G.

Group H: Celtic, Sparta Prague, Milan, Lille

An eye catching group featuring Scottish heavyweights Celtic and possible outright winners Milan. The Italians are an upwardly mobile side this calendar year under Stefano Pioli and with Zlatan Ibrahimović in their ranks, all is possible. The absence of Celtic’s crucial 12th man, the passionate Celtic Park home support, could hamper their progress.

Group I: Villarreal, Qarabağ, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Sivasspor

Villarreal have a talented group featuring Spanish strikers Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcácer. Their coach Unai Emery knows this competition like the back of his hand with three consecutive Europa League victories with Sevilla and was runner-up with Arsenal too. They have a tricky group geographically to negotiate but should sail through nonetheless. The Yellow Submarine will fancy their chances of a decent cup run.

Group J: Tottenham Hotspur, Ludogorets, LASK, Royal Antwerp

Jose Mourinho and his Tottenham side are no doubt one of the favourites to win the Europa League. And with a potent front three of Son Heung-min, Harry Kane and star signing Gareth Bale to add to an already gifted squad, Spurs have every reason to believe they can lift the trophy.

Group K: CSKA Moscow, Dinamo Zagreb, Feyenoord, Wolfsburger AC

A highly unpredictable group on face value, in which each team will have reason to believe they can progress to the knockout stages. The vastly experienced Dutch coach Dick Advocaat will look to give Feyenoord his touch of European pedigree to prevail from Group K.

Group L: Gent, Red Star Belgrade, Hoffenheim, Slovan Liberec

German side Hoffenheim continue to grow and have become accustomed to a staple diet of European football in recent times. They bolstered their side with Tottenham Hotspur left-back Ryan Sessegnon on loan and his new club head up another group which is wide open.

Five players to watch

There will be plenty of stars on show through a star-studded cast of footballing actors – all dreaming of European glory. Here are five players to keep a look out for:

Gareth Bale [Tottenham Hotspur]

The box office signing for José Mourinho’s men and a tug of nostalgia for the Welshman returning to his former stomping ground. After seven up and down years at Real Madrid, Bale will want to prove that he is still a player at the top of his game and create further success to add to his Spurs legend. Most importantly, he will look to earn his team a much coveted trophy.

Thomas Partey [Arsenal]

Arsenal’s new £45m midfield dynamo will give the Gunners a new dimension in the middle of the park with his athletic style of play. The Ghana international is perfectly adept as both a destroyer, breaking play up, and a conductor, making his team tick with insightful passes.

Jamie Vardy [Leicester City]

Last season’s Premier League Golden Boot winner, with 23 goals, has already hit the ground running in 2020-21 after a lighting streak of strikes. Despite turning 33, this late bloomer shows no signs of slowing down and is a classic example of what happens to fine wine. He will be the fulcrum of the team’s attacking play and his poacher style and goals will be crucial to Leicester’s chances of European glory.

Fabián Ruiz [Napoli]

The Spain international has grown exponentially since his move from hometown side Real Betis, with classy performances and an impressive haul of long range goals. In short time he has become his team’s midfield metronome, orchestrating attacks with astute play and intelligent passes.

Darwin Núñez [Benfica]

The 21-year-old Uruguayan striker signed from Spanish Segunda side Almeria this summer for a Portuguese record fee of £22m. The forward, who scored 16 goals last season, is a promising talent and will complement the experienced Swiss striker Haris Seferović. The pair could prove to be a potent attacking force.

Five must-see matches

The Europa League draw threw up some mouth-watering group stage match ups. Here are five of the best…

Braga vs. Leicester City, November 26

Leicester City are one of the most interesting teams in the 2020-21 Europa League. Unlikely to win the Premier League title – not again, surely? – and with only two other domestic trophies to compete for, the Europa League is a realistic chance for silverware. The trip to Braga will tell us a lot about Brendan Rodgers’ side.

Milan vs. Celtic, December 3

The battle of these two European powerhouses needs no over-selling, nor hyping up for their supporters or football connoisseurs. Although both clubs have been out of the European limelight in recent years, the spotlight will be firmly on their contests. Both games at Celtic Park and at the San Siro promise to be a fascinating prospect.

Napoli vs. Real Sociedad, December 10

Two teams who love to play ‘carpet football’ as the late, great Sir Bobby Robson would describe it. Both sides like to play expansive, attacking and entertaining football led by their midfield stars, the veteran  David Silva from Real Sociedad and the emerging Fabián Ruiz from Napoli.

Granada vs. PSV Eindhoven, December 10

Granada’s first foray into the Europa League comes against a PSV Eindhoven side who have been around the European block. The rawness of the Andalusians against the knowhow of the Dutch has all the ingredients for an interesting match-up.

Dundalk vs. Arsenal, December 10

An authentic modern day David vs. Goliath contest between these two teams. Dundalk are Ireland’s most successful European side, Arsenal one of the front-runners to win the Europa League and one of England’s most glamorous clubs. Dundalk were in the Europa League four years ago and acquitted themselves well, earning the League of Ireland’s first Europa League victory. A repeat here would go down in history.

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