2018/19 Europa League preview: It's a Spanish thing
Unless their club is involved, football enthusiasts tend to ignore the Europa League.
The primary cause is burnout. Just like players struggle to recover for domestic matches on Sundays after travelling extensively for Thursday nights on the continent, fans are exhausted after a domestic smorgasbord on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays is followed by two courses of Champions League matches on Tuesday and Wednesday. They need a break to recharge their batteries for the weekend.
There's another, more subversive reason. The Europa League is filled with inconvenient truths. Premier League fans especially find it difficult to think of La Liga as an inferior two-team division when clubs not named Real Madrid or Barcelona keep winning the damned thing. As well, the rest of the continent is catching up with the elite clubs. Contenders like Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, Napoli and Arsenal either drop down from the Champions League or start in the second competition but still fail to win it. No longer can supporters claim to be a cut above the rest without living entirely in the past.
If you can approach it with an open mind, you'll get a look at next summer's club-record transfers laying the groundwork for major stardom. You'll see clubs you've never heard of, whose names you probably can't pronounce, play exciting football. Give it a try. The worst thing that can happen is your partner will divorce you.
Here's a look at all 12 groups to get you up to speed while the dinner dishes pile up in the sink.
Teams: AEK Larnaca, Bayer Leverkusen, Ludogorets, Zurich
Okay, so this isn't an ideal lead-off group to illustrate my point. Let the dishes sit, though. The good stuff is coming. I promise.
First, you know Leverkusen. The Bayernliga also-rans are an exciting squad filled with talented youngsters. Leon Bailey, Julian Brandt, Bruma, Jonathan Tah. The remaining three clubs include a Cypriot side with a Greek prefix, the Bulgarian champions whose name sounds like a brand of lozenges, and a neutral Swiss side. But Leverkusen are an exciting squad filled with talented youngsters.
Prediction: Heiko Herrlich's youngsters will crank it up domestically after a slow start, then boss the group. I'll blow a tenner on Ludogorets to progress with them.
Teams: Celtic, RB Leipzig, Rosenborg, RB Salzburg
Ah, this is more like it. Brendan Rodgers' Scottish champions couldn't make the Champions League group stages this term. Their failure is rewarded with possibly the toughest group in the secondary tournament. The good news is there's a nearly unlimited supply of energy drinks. Red Bull's two European football franchises were drawn into the same group, giving the tinfoil hat crowd something to reddit about. Rosenborg aren't too bad, either. The Norwegian champions can mix it up in this group. Opposing defenders must be warned to keep one eye on Lord-Baron Nicklas Bendtner. Rumours emanating from the Copenhagen cabbie's local have it the self-absorbed Danish striker possesses a wicked right hand.
Prediction: Ralf Rangnick has an even more thrilling side stuffed to the bursting point with young talent than fellow Bundesliga boss Herrlich. With Timo Werner, Emil Forsberg, Youssuf Poulsen and Bruma at his disposal, German clubs should be two for two in the group-winning department. It's on Salzburg, who made it to the final four in this competition in 2017/18, to hold off the Bhoys and the lads from Trondheim in Group B's gathering of lifelessness.
Teams: Bordeaux Girondins, Kobenhavn, Slavia Praha, Zenit St Petersburg
On its face, this seems a straightforward group. Top-half clubs from Ligue 1 and the Russian Premier League should have no problems against the Danish champions and Czech runners-up.
Certainly, Zenit are in the mood. They're off to a flying start domestically. Artem Dzyuba introduced himself at the World Cup inasmuch as a 6' 5" centre-forward needs to do such things. Branislav Ivanovic marshals the rearguard. Claudio Marchisio has arrived to tell bedtime stories about winning Scudettos with Juventus.
Bordeaux are a mess, however. When Malcom was sold in the summer, Gus Poyet fought the board and the board won. Evidently, the Uruguayan hadn't heard of the Crickets. Eric Bedouet took the reins but the squad is still startled by loud noises and sudden movements. They're in the relegation places rather than the customary top-half position.
Prediction: The group is Zenit's to lose. Normally, you'd pick Bordeaux to push them but I have a sneaking suspicion Bedouet will tank the competition to focus on Ligue 1, gifting the Danes an opportunity to progress.
Teams: Anderlecht, Dinamo Zagreb, Fenerbahce, Spartak Trnava
Another benefit the Europa League offers is its diversity. The Champions League draws more clubs from western Europe especially with Serie A, La Liga, the Premier League and Bundesliga each claiming four automatic group stage berths. That's half the field. The EL welcomes Scandinavian and eastern European sides to its dance. Group D[iversity] exemplifies that expansiveness. Belgian and Turkish giants face off against Croatian and Slovakian champions. It'd be fun to Eurorail this group.
Prediction: The Turks hold the pole position in this race. Phillip Cocu's squad boasts a handful of Premier League veterans including Islam Slimani, Andrew Ayew, Martin Skrtel and Roberto Soldado. Mathieu Valbuena is in the team, as well, although he'd appreciate you not telling Karim Benzema. Normally, my western bias would settle on Anderlecht to finish second, but Dinamo may be riding Luka Modric et al's World Cup coattails this fall.
Teams: Arsenal, Qarabag, Sporting Club de Portugal, Vorskla Portavla
Here's another foursome that may not be as straightforward as a first glance suggests. Arsenal and Sporting are going through turbulent times.
Arsene Wenger left the Gunners. Unai Emery took charge. Jack Wilshere was politely advised to take his cursed luck to West Ham. The midfield suddenly has a bonafide defensive midfielder in Lucas Torreira. Rather than settling in, however, the club is jarred by the news CEO Ivan Gazidis is negotiating to take the same post with AC Milan.
Meanwhile, erstwhile Sporting chairman Bruno Carvalho attempted to bring fascism into football at last season's end, tweeting rudely about players, threatening them, promising to purge the roster, replacing them with more dedicated local lads. When nine first-teamers put in transfer requests, the board hurriedly convened to stage a coup. With Bas Dost electing to remain and Nani back in the fold, the Lions are in a three-way battle to top the Primeira Liga with Braga and Benfica while Porto and Maritimo linger one point off the pace.
Prediction: Emotionally, there might not be a better time to be Qarabag or Vorskla Poltava, but the Azerbaijani champions and Ukrainian second-runners-up don't have enough to exploit the bigger clubs' jangled nerves.
Teams: F91 Dudelange, AC Milan, Olympiacos, Real Betis
My first thought on seeing the Group F quartet was that I've been to a dude ranch. The second was wtf is a Luxembourgian side doing in an major European competition? Did someone leave the side door unlocked? Then I remembered I'm a champion of diversity.
Essentially this is a three-club race. Milan will not wait on Ivan Gazidis' arrival. Gennaro Gattuso has a point to prove after being bounced from the competition by his [potential] new boss' [potentially] old club in last term's Round of 16. Real Betis are becoming the type of La Liga club that wins Europa Leagues although they still might be a player or two short. Then again, DM William Carvalho could be just the player Quique Setien needs.
Prediction: There's a Youtube video in which a lioness unexpectedly protects an injured fox from the rest of her pride. You may have seen it. What I'm saying, champion of diversity or not, is that won't happen here. Dudelange will finish bottom without taking a point. That will help Olympiacos keep the pressure on the Rossoneri and Beticos, but no more. Not even with Yaya Toure in the squad.
Teams: Rangers, Rapid Wien, Spartak Moscow, Villarreal
Steven Gerrard's Champions League pedigree and impressive qualifying run for this competition had many believing he might have the stuff to challenge Celtic in the Scottish Premier League in his debut campaign as manager. No one anticipated Craig Levein's Hearts would be perfect after five rounds and both sides of the Old Firm well off the pace. Nothing is ever easy.
That includes Group G. Villarreal are better than their own poor start in La Liga suggests. Spartak are in a dead heat for second in the RPL. Rapid are the suckers at the table, eight points off RB Salzburg's pace in the Austrian Bundesliga.
Prediction: Stevie G has it all to do to pip either Spartak or the Yellow Submarine to a qualifying place. Except the longer Gers languish in the SPL, the more difficult it becomes.
Teams: Apollon Limassol, Eintracht Frankfurt, Lazio, Olympique de Marseille
Eintracht and Lazio weren't quick out of the Bundesliga and Serie A blocks. The German Eagles are 12th, their Italian counterparts eighth. Marseille are the only big club in the group to hit the ground running. They're still five points adrift Paris Saint-Germain. The Cypriot runners-up in 2017/18 present the trio with an opportunity to work out the kinks.
Adi Hutter has some names in his Eintracht squad. Croatian striker Anti Rebic leads the line. Failed male model Kevin Trapp poses between the sticks. Gelson Fernandes and Carlos Salcedo are available. Unfortunately, he probably wishes he had winger Marco Reus rather than defender Marco Russ to help him past Lazio and Marseille.
Prediction: With Dmitri Payet, Florian Thauvin, Valere Germain, Luis Gustavo, Adil Rami and Steve Mandanda, OM is the class of the group. Any XI including Ciro Immobile and Sergei Milinkovic-Savic is going places, too. The problem is Simone Inzhagi can't call on the right Lukaku. Rather than bruising finisher Romelu, the Lazio boss has brutal defender Jordan in the squad. He has enough to accompany Rudi Garcia's side to the knockout rounds, however.
Teams: Besiktas, Genk, Malmo, Sarpsborg 08
Besiktas were looking like world beaters in last season's Champions League until they ran up against Bayern Munich in the Round of 16. World Cup hero Domagoj Vida was the goat, drawing a red card on the quarter-hour. The Bavarians romped to a 5-0 victory then closed the tie out with a 3-1 win in Istanbul. The best player in Senol Gunes' starting XI, midfield magician Talisca, defected to Guangzhou Evergrande in the Chinese Super League. Regardless, the Black Eagles maintain a star-studded roster. Ricardo Quaresma, Ryan Babel, Pepe, Vida, Gary Medel, Jeremain Lens and Vagner Love are joined by Loris Karius [...]. Forget the prediction; they'll win this group.
Genk ought to have enough to hold off Malmo and Sarpsborg. The Norwegian club celebrates its tenth anniversary by qualifying for this tournament. Their fans will be marking the tie with Malmo on their calendar, an Aurora Borealis derby.
Prediction: What? I said forget about the prediction.
Teams: Akhisar Belidiyespor, Krasnodar, Sevilla, Standard Liege
Sevilla went through three managers in 2017/18 yet still dumped Manchester United from the Champions League, at Old Trafford no less. What will they do with [or without] Pablo Machin this season? To begin, they should boss this group. Turkish side Akhisar finished 11th in the Super Lig, qualifying for Europe through their improbable Turkish Cup win. Krasnodar seem permanently installed in fourth place in Russia, finishing there last term and holding down the spot this season. Standard Liege ought to be their toughest competition. Michel Preud'homme's group took second in the Jupiler League, but the Belgian side's most notable player is keeper Memo Ochoa.
Prediction: With Wissam ben Yedder, Joaquin Correa, Luis Muriel, Nolito, Jesus Navas, Ever Banega, Simon Kjaer and Aleix Vidal in his squad, Pablo Machin has no excuses not to take the Rojiblancos into the knockout stage. This is a tournament for Spanish clubs, after all. Standard should benefit from the long winter break in Russia to catch Krasnodar off their game.
Teams: Astana, Dynamo Kyiv, Jablonec, Stade Rennais
Rennes' fortunes in this comparatively light group depend on Hatem Ben Arfa. Will the forgotten Frenchman feel it or have more flashbacks of Nigel de Jong horror tackles? Les Rouge et Noir surprised everyone with their fifth-place finish in Ligue 1. On paper, they're the creme de la creme in this group. If that paper happens to be a map, though, one will notice Astana gives new meaning to the term eastern European. The Kazakh city can be found due north of Karachi and Kabul in what most people call Asia. Roman Hryhorchuk's side gains an immense home advantage. Their three opponents will learn the true meaning of jet lag, hopping off a seven or eight-hour flight, sleepwalking through a 90-minute match then heading home immediately. Will the trio be willing to risk their domestic campaigns by sending their best players? Kyiv and Jablonec may. Rennes boss Sabri Lamouchi will probably think twice.
Prediction: The group will be tighter than it looks but Rennes' will go through followed by the Ukrainians.
Teams: BATE Borisov, Chelsea, PAOK Salonika, Videoton
The Blues aren't the only squad in this group with bonafide names on the roster. Former Arsenal and Barcelona star Alex Hleb is back in his native Belarus with BATE Borisov. The moody playmaker is 37 now but still patrolling the midfield. Not quite on the same level, PAOK also boast a former Gunner in Nigerian Chuba Akpom. Marko Nikolic's Hungarian champions do most of their shopping for foreign players in Bosnia.
Prediction: Stuck playing on Thursday nights, expect Maurizio Sarri to give the Blues' supporting cast prominent roles in this competition. Even with players such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Victor Moses and Ethan Ampadu featuring, Chelsea will command the group. I'm plumping for PAOK in the second slot. Chuba Akpom will run circles around grandpa Hleb.
See you in January.