The UEFA Europa League began in earnest this month, with the draw on 1 October shaping the entire complexion of the competition. As usual, the teams were drawn from pots based on their UEFA coefficients, which are (for now) the defining metric for seeding teams, but not even that could prevent a ‘group of death’ or two from forming.
Last season was no different, with Dynamo Kiev, PSV Eindhoven, Lazio and Borussia Mönchengladbach being definite victims of a shock failure to proceed. Those case studies fuel the belief that some other fancied teams will fall by the wayside, or at least find themselves on the receiving end of an underdog victory.
With this in mind, these three matches will be ones to watch.
All wagering odds for the greatest tournaments show a moneyline favourite and an underdog in every match, but there are certain elements that can reduce the odds against the latter. In the case of Group H, which has already been identified as a particularly tough group, Milan may field a couple of fringe players. Whether or not they do so against Lille, they are guaranteed a challenge, with the French club making an excellent start to 2020/21.
While it is hard to ignore the fact that Lille have not won a Europa League match since December 2010, it is the here and now that really matters. Every Ligue 1 game up to the international break saw Lille keep a first-half clean sheet, contributing much to an unbeaten return of four wins and two draws from the opening six league games.
The continued absence of AC Milan from top-level European football has also played its part in devaluing the San Siro’s status as a fortress when Milan are the hosts. The Rossoneri’s current UEFA coefficient (19.000) is a stark fall from the one with which they entered their last Champions League campaign seven years ago (93.829).
Milan have lost two of their last five Europa League games, against Arsenal and Real Betis, and were unimpressive in their qualifying win over Bodø / Glimt, just scraping home 3-2 after a disastrous start, and relying on a double from Hakan Çalhanoğlu to bail them out.
Romanian clubs have enjoyed a minor renaissance in recent years, with Astra Giurgiu’s double-header of qualifying aggregate wins over West Ham a few years ago standing prominent in the memory. Over the past 12 years though, CFR Cluj have become a consistent beacon for Romanian football, making a maiden appearance in the 2008/09 Champions League group stage. They won only once en-route to a fourth-place finish – but it was a memorable victory.
Of all teams, it was Roma they beat in that group stage campaign, with Cluj winning 2-1 at the Olympic stadium and stealing all the headlines. Last season saw Cluj make a real breakthrough, with the Transylvanian outfit sucking the life out of every visitor in the group stage, going on to finish second.
Though immediately eliminated by Sevilla – who defied their own adverse pre-match odds to win the final – Cluj did not lose either leg, instead bowing out on away goals. Notably, Roma’s neighbours Lazio were amongst Cluj’s victims in last season’s group stage, meaning that Cluj are not short of the inspiration necessary to ensure that Roma ‘sleep well’ yet again.
For their part, Rapid Vienna have not faced English opposition for ten years, notably dumping Aston Villa out at the Europa League qualification playoff stage for the second time in as many seasons back in 2010. That year also marked Rapid’s most recent competitive win on English soil. More recently, Rapid played opposition from Europe’s top-five leagues twice last term, but were punished in their away legs, going down 5-0 at Villarreal and 4-0 at Inter.
Under normal circumstances, this would go in a similar direction, but it is not just ‘hard’ groups that open up the potential for a shock.
Arsenal have been granted a relatively easy group, containing no other representatives from one of Europe’s top five leagues. That yields expectation of progression being sealed early – perhaps even with two games to spare, provided that Mikel Arteta takes the competition seriously, as he surely will given Arsenal’s status as outright favourites.
Even if progression is not completely sealed by matchday five, a number of fringe players are certain to feature given Arsenal’s home advantage, giving this one a similar feel to recent shock UEL home defeats vs Olympiakos and Ostersunds.