The favourites to win the Europa League
The opening weeks of the Europa League may not be littered with matches which scream elite continental competition.
But after slogging through meetings between unseeded teams in the group stage – it would be cruel to name names but you know which clubs we’re talking about (or rather, you don’t know them, which is the point) – the knockout stages serve as an intriguing second act to each week of European football after the Champions League main event.
Now to down eight teams, it’s time for those remaining to start dreaming of European glory and a potential place in the top tier of continental competition next season. Here’s the favourites to succeed Eintracht Frankfurt as champions.
The real underdog left in the competition is plucky Belgian minnows Union Saint-Gilloise, who are continuing to go from strength to strength.
A thrilling round of clash with surprise Bundesliga package Union Berlin resulted in a nine-goal thriller over two legs, won by Saint-Gilloise 6-3 on aggregate.
Their prolific goalscoring ability will be an obstacle for any opponent to overcome, though they fall some way short of the mark in terms of pedigree at this stage.
It’s been a truly sensational season for Feyenoord and their manager Arne Slot, who currently top the Eredivisie table ahead of usual suspects Ajax and PSV Eindhoven.
The Rotterdam giants have lost just one game in the league so far, and their fine domestic form has carried over onto the European stage. In the last 16, Shakhtar Donetsk were absolutely walloped 8-2 on aggregate – a real statement performance from a side who will fancy their chances of upsetting anyone.
When Sporting CP drew Arsenal in the round of 16, many assumed that Ruben Amorim’s side would be overpowered by a team full of confidence from topping the Premier League table.
But the Portuguese giants didn’t read the script, and after Pedro Goncalves’ audacious equaliser forced the tie into extra-time and then penalties, they came out on top after coolly dispatching all five of their spot-kicks.
Rule them out at your peril.
Any other club enduring the domestic campaign Sevilla have been slogging through this year would have no right to be considered among the favourites for a European crown.
But the Europa League is only practically owned by Sevilla and leased to the few teams that sporadically claim it otherwise.
Jorge Sampaoli’s side were outside La Liga’s relegation zone on goal difference alone when they earned a 2-0 first-leg victory over Fenerbahce in the round of 16, and they sealed the deal in the return fixture to make the last eight again.
Xabi Alonso’s first top-flight managerial role has endured its fair share of ups and downs. After beating Schalke 4-0 on his debut in the dugout, Bayer Leverkusen went a month without winning while exiting the Champions League group stage.
A five-game winning streak on either side of the World Cup was punctured by successive defeats to Borussia Dortmund and Augsburg, but the return of the immensely talented teenager Florian Wirtz has been instrumental to Leverkusen’s progression in the Europa League.
If the 19-year-old can keep it up, Bayer could be ones to watch.
The first European trophy Jose Mourinho ever won was the Europa League’s more streamlined predecessor, the UEFA Cup. Much has changed since a slick-haired 40-year-old steered Porto to glory in 2003 but the current Roma manager still boasts a strong chance of winning again two decades later.
Mourinho led Roma to the inaugural Europa Conference League last season and oversaw a two-legged victory over Real Sociedad in a tricky round of 16 tie.
The bolted door Mourinho locks each game may not lend itself to the consistency demanded of a league title challenge, but there still seems to be a place for it in knockout competitions.
While their appeal is still cranking through the first cogs of Italian bureaucracy, the 15-point penalty Juventus were handed in January has sent Serie A tumbling down the club’s list of priorities.
The Europa League is quite clearly Juve’s most likely route back into the Champions League and Massimiliano Allegri has led the Old Lady to a pair of European finals in the past – although, he lost them both with far better squads than the modern-day iteration.
After some dancing on the side of the pitch, the immediate reaction among the Manchester United squad to winning the Carabao Cup was: “This is just the start.”
A historic mauling at Anfield somewhat dented talk of a “new era” at Old Trafford but Erik ten Hag once again underscored his managerial prowess by naming the exact same team against Real Betis for the Europa League round of 16 first leg.
United won comfortably, 5-1 on aggregate, and are now the team to beat in the Europa League.
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