The start of the Europa Playoffs is at hand, with the first home games to be played in three days time. Sixty two teams from all over Europe have qualified to play their final two matches before entering the Group Phase of this competition. Formerly called the UEFA Cup until it was rebranded in to the Europa League for the 2009-2010 season, this is the second most prestigious club competition next to the Champions League. Defending Champions Atletico Madrid has earned their right to play in the Group Stage right away because of their triumph in this tournament last year.
The sixty two teams who made it to these Playoffs came through using different routes. Twenty nine came directly from winning in the previous qualifying stage. Ten are domestic cup winners. Nine were either third, fourth or fifth place in their respective leagues. Lastly fourteen of them came directly after losing in the Third Round of the Champions League Qualifying Stage. There are more teams in this competition compared to the Champions League because it as a merging of three cup competitions. The UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup was discontinued in 1999 and was merged with the UEFA Cup. The UEFA Intertoto Cup was abolished along with the rebranding in 2009, which meant that this competition grew even bigger with more teams joining in. These are the upcoming matches for this year’s UEFA Europa League Playoffs:
Anzhi Makhachkala vs. AZ*
Neftchi Baku vs. APOEL*
Atromitos vs. Newcastle United*
Tromsø vs. Partizan*
Vaslui vs. Internazionale*
Seeded teams have an asterisk*
The team with the highest profile in this group is 2010 Champions League Winners Internazionale of Italy. They have been in a state of rebuilding ever since Jose Mourinho left and have not been able to emulate that success in the past years. If they do well in this tournament, it will certainly boost the morale of the team to get back to the top. Vaslui may not be ranked much higher than Inter right now but they will have a mountain to climb against the Italians. Anzhi Makhachkala has Samuel Eto’o in their squad. The highest paid football player in the world is now playing in the Russian League after being successful in both La Liga with Barcelona and Italy with Internazionale. If he goes on and leads Anzhi to the title, he would add another trophy to his cabinet. Aside from Anzhi pulling the upset over AZ, I see the seeded teams go through to the Group Stage.
Heart of Midlothian vs. Liverpool*
Athletic Bilbao* vs. HJK
Maritimo vs. Dila Gori*
Molde vs. Heerenveen*
Debrecen vs. Club Brugge*
Five-time Champions League winner Liverpool is the biggest team in this group. They last won the cup in 2005, after coming from behind 0-3 to A.C. Milan and beating them in penalty kicks. Since then, they have had mixed successes, both in Champions League and Europa League action. Their new coach Brendan Rodgers will have to motivate the likes of Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez into a solid team as soon as possible if they have any chance to succeed this year. Hearts will give them a tough game, their rugged style of play coming from the Scottish First Division will be difficult to break down. Another game to watch is the one between Athletic Bilbao and HJK of Helsinki. Athletic have been performing consistently the past few years and managed a second-place finish in this competition last year. If they hold to transfer-targets Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez, they will have enough quality in their ranks to go all the way to the final. I predict all the seeded teams to go on to the Group Stage.
Sheriff Tiraspol vs. Olympique Marseille*
Trabzonspor* vs. Videoton
Midtyjlland vs. Young Boys*
Slask Wroclaw vs. Hannover 96*
Dinamo Bucuresti vs. Metalist Kharkiv*
Olympique Marseille were runners-up in this competition twice before, and won the Champions League in 1993. The current French League Cup Champions, they will be favorites to qualify in this group. Sheriff Tiraspol will need a miracle to go through; Marseille’s quality in every position simply outclasses them. Another match to watch is the Dinamo Bucuresti vs. Metalist Kharkiv match. Dinamo have the experience and the players in this competition to provide the upset. Aside from this match, I predict all the other seeds to qualify for the Group Stage.
Horsens vs. Sporting CP*
F91 Dudelange vs. Hapoel Tel Aviv*
Feyenoord vs. Sparta Prague*
Motherwell vs. Levante*
Red Star Belgrade vs. Bordeaux*
The most competitive match in this group is between Feyenoord and Sparta Prague. Even if Sparta is the seeded team, Feyenoord comes from the Dutch League and is a two-time UEFA Cup winner. The other contest to watch in this group is the Levante vs. Motherwell one. This is Motherwell’s fourth straight appearance in the UEFA Cup/Europa League. Levante is in their maiden season in this competition and might not have enough experience to go through. I believe Motherwell and Feyenoord to provide the upsets while Sporting Cp, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Bordeaux to qualify as well.
Lokeren vs. Victoria Plzen*
Mura 05 vs. Lazio*
AIK vs. CSKA Moscow*
Legia Warsaw vs. Rosenborg*
Bursaspor vs. Twente*
This group is another group that will probably have no surprises. Rosenborg, Lazio and CSKA Moscow have valuable experience throughout the years in European Football in both Champions League and Europa League football. CSKA Moscow won the UEFA Cup in 2005. Rosenborg has been playing in either the Champions League or Europa League almost every year. FC Twente has been successful in their domestic competition in the Netherlands and will be looking to make strides in this competition. I see all the seeds to qualify for the Group Stage.
Ekranas vs. Steaua Bucuresti*
Slovan Liberec vs. Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk*
Stuttgart* vs. Dynamo Moscow
PAOK* vs. Rapid Wien
Luzern vs. Genk*
Zeta vs. PSV Eindhoven*
The biggest side in this group is PSV Eindhoven, winning the Champions League in 1998 and the UEFA Cup in 1978. Even if PSV has been struggling to win the domestic league the past few seasons, Zeta will not pose that much of a threat to the Dutch team. Stuttgart is another major team in this group; the former German Champions (2007) were also runners-up in the UEFA cup (1989) and Cup Winner’s Cup (1998) while winning the Intertoto Cup in 2000 and 2002. They have the pedigree to see off Dynamo Moscow. This group is going to turn out like the previous one, with all the seeded teams winning.
The Europa League will be another exciting competition where upsets may happen along the way. The Playoffs will lessen the field down to thirty one teams, and will be joined by ten losers from the Champions League Playoffs and six domestic cup winners along with the titleholders Atletico Madrid. As the tournament progresses, only the stronger teams will survive but like in many cup competitions, upsets can happen more often than a league campaign. Atletico Madrid still has Falcao with them, who led them to the title last year and also led Porto to win this cup in 2011. Sevilla were able to retain this title in 2006 and then in 2007, maybe Atletico will be able to do it as well.
“The smell of freshly-cut grass and the whiff of the chalk before a big game…and then it starts to rain. You. Are. Home.”