This week’s third qualifying round results and subsequent playoff draw has made the picture much clearer in terms of our potential opponents in the EL group phase draw which is made in a few weeks. A total of 48 teams play in the group stage: 7 teams including us which enter in this stage, the 31 winners of the play-off round, and the 10 losers of the 2014–15 UEFA Champions League play-off round.
Here are the playoff fixtures for both the Europa League & Champions League along with my expected outcomes;
The above teams in red would then join the automatic group qualifier like ourselves in 4 pots quantified by each sides coefficient, so Pot 1 are the top sides and Pot 4 the rubbish ones. Based on Bong’s colossal nerding and the above predictions, pot 2 would appear the likely destination for the Toffees. Let’s take a look at the pots based on the above predictions and the respected sides coefficient data;
So basically we will play one side from each of Pots 1, 3 & 4. Here is some ‘one dig’ analysis on these opponents;
Pot 1 Teams
Probably the biggest name in Pot 1 is Inter Milan, who elder Blues will recall knocked us out of the European Cup in 1963. The current roster of The Nerazzurri is a far cry from the treble winning crop of 2010 nor is it close to the all-star Vieri/Ronaldo vintage of the 90’s and 00’s. Indeed, a glimpse at their best eleven shows how far they have sunk and in their last few excursions into the EL they’ve not exactly shown an appetite to succeed. Argentine World Cup forward Rodrigo Palacio (below) is their key man, weighing in with 17 goals and 7 assists last season. His countryman Ricky provided the main creative output whilst they have also recruited the likes of Vidic, M’Vila and Osvaldo in the summer.
Staying in Italy and old foes Fiorentina attack will be spearheaded by ex Man United goal getter Giuseppe Rossi who weighed in with 16 goals last season and former Bayern monster Mario Gomez. In midfield Borja Valero is the creative hub along with £20m kopite Aquilani who will sit deeper in their midfield engine room. Columbian World Cup trickster Juan Cuadrado also players for these cats.
Closer to home, Dutch Champions in 2010 under Steve McLaren Twente begin the season weaker following the defection of top player Tadic to Southampton – the schemer either scored or assisted 30 goals in a vintage campaign last season. He has been replaced by highly rated Kasper Kusk and they also have the dangerous forward Castaignos in their ranks who got 14 goals last season. They are a formidable opponent at home, impressively going the whole of last season without losing on their own turf. Dutch rivals and former European Cup winners PSV reached the 1/4 finals of the Europa League (EL) in 2011 and the round of 16 in 2012 but just as their league form has withered in the recent years so has their form in the EL, failing to progress from average groups in 2013 and 2014.Their hopes will rest with on keeping hold of Dutch International Memphis Depay who weighed in with 12 goals and seven assists last season. Luuk de Jong – once touted as the next top Dutch ‘number nine’ during his FC Twente days – has also joined after a disappointing spell at Newcastle United which yielded 0 goals.
In La Liga, Athletic Bilbao may no longer have the wacky management of Bielsa or the finishing of Llorente to call on, but they do have a very competent side. Markel Susaeta registered the 4th most assists (12) in la liga last season whilst Aritz Aduriz was their top scorer with 16 goals. Fellow Spaniards and our 2005 ECL conquerors Villarreal have made a comeback since relegation a few years ago and finished 6th last term, albeit 31 points behind champions Athletico Madrid. Nigerian striker Ucho and Giovani Dos Santos were their top scoring duo although the real key men were probably Argentine defender Mateo Musacchio and midfield general Bruno. The third Spanish side who could end up in Pot 1 are three time winners and current holders Sevilla . In the close season they lost their key player with Croatian Ivan Rakitic – who slotted 12 goals and 10 assists last season – jumping ship to Barca. They still have Gameiro and rumoured toffee target Bacca in their attack – the duo bagged 29 goals between them last year.
Across the channel, Lille had the best defence in ligue 1 last season although were the lowest scorers in top 9. Former Chelsea forward Kalou got 16 of them whilst £10m libepewl signing Origi got 6. They have good stock having been Champions in 2011 and having qualified for the ECL in 2012 during the days of Eden Hazard. Staying in France and Olympique Lyon are one of the stellar names in the tournament and are very much a thoroughbred in European competitions. Last season they finished 28 points off the pace in ligue 1, leading to a 6th place finish and the sacking of coach Remi Garde. Replaced by Hubert Fournier, the new boss still has 15 goal top scorer Alexandre Lacazette (1 in 4 career ratio) and chief creator Henri Bedimo however Bafétimbi Gomis who got 14 goals last time round has moved to Swansea.
Heading east, and many will be familiar with Metalist from our 2007/8 campaign . The Kharkiv club qualified from the EL groups in their last 3 attempts, getting to the quarters once. Perennially the bridesmaids in the Ukraine league, they have never finished outside top 3 in the last 8 seasons but have never took the title. They are also weakened by last season’s top scorer Marko Devich defecting to Rubin Kazan in Russia. Fellow Ukranian’s Dynamo Kiev have got out of the group phase in 3 of their last 4 EL excursions, with their best performance being in 2011 when they were defeated by Braga in the quarters. Key man Andriy Yarmalenko is their most famous current player with the chief goal threat coming from Dieudonne “Brzi” Mbokani Bezua. Familiar foes Spurs are my 12th and final side in Pot 1, however nation states cannot be drawn together at this stage so we don’t need to worry about them yet.
Pot 1 Team to avoid: Metalist Kharkiv – A saga of a journey and a dangerous opponent, the same applies for Kiev.
Pot 1 Ideal Opponent: Lille or PSV – Both relatively easy journeys and neither side are the force they were a few years ago.
Pot 3 Teams
Spaniard’s Real Sociedad were 4th last season in La Liga but have since lost key man Antoine Griezmann to Athletico. Mexican ex Arsenal man Carlos Vela was top scorer and top creator with 16 goals and 12 assists last season and has stuck around while left back Jose Angel is also a solid performer.After a 10 year exile from European football they returned to the ECL last season however they lost 5 of their 6 games and finished bottom of their group. They also struggled to defeat Aberdeen in the qualifier this week.
Maccabi Tel Aviv successfully retained their Israeli title last season, winning the league by 7 points. Top league scorer Eran Zahavi bagged 29 goals and will be their main threat. Sheriff Tirapsol are Moldovan Champions and represent a decent well drilled outfit; they are organised, very tight at the back and gave Spurs a solid test last season. Top scorer in their domestic league was Henrique Luvannor, a Brazilian-Moldovan who racked up 22 goals. In recent years they have beaten more illustrious opponents like Dynamo Kiev and Dynamo Zagreb, so they are a legitimate dark horse.
Arguably the most dangerous side in Pot 3 could be Ludogorets Razgrad, the Bulgarian champions. Since promotion they’ve won the league 3 seasons on the spin and last season in the EL they topped their group and knocked out Lazio in the 2nd round before bowing out in last 16. Slovenian forward Roman Bezjak was their top scorer last time round which included 6 goals in 7 EL games.
Moscow outfit Lokomotiv are a defensively well drilled side who finished 5 points off the winners CSKA in last season’s title rice. Ex Chelsea and Arsenal midfield loon Lassana Diarra is an extremely erratic tackler, sent off twice in his first batch of games after moving to Russia and he could be partnered by ex toffee snake Manual Fernandes in midfield. In 11/12 they got out of the group but succumbed to Bilbao on goal difference in the second phase. Hapless mono paced ex toffee winger ‘Billy’ used to turn out for them.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s old club Nacional are an established top half Portuguese side who will provide a decent test albeit they shouldn’t have the tools to really worry us. Venezuelan Rondon (not the one we tried to sign) is a good goalscorer for them and could do a job against the tournament’s weaker defences. They have been in the EL on two previous occasions, both ending in elimination at the group stage with just 3 wins from the 12 games played. Fellow Portuguese side Estoril Praia finished 4th last season in their domestic championship and 5th in 12/13. Top scorer Evandro has since jumped ship to Porto and highly rated manager Marco Silva has moved on to Sporting. Keeper Vagner da Silva had a great season last time out, keeping 11 clean sheets, and he remains at the club. They didn’t win any of their 6 group games in the EL last season and would be an ideal opponent for us.
Switzerland has a couple of sides in Pot 3.Anders Limpar’s old club Young Boys reached the second round in 2011 and represent a capable outfit. Their top scorer last season was 20 year old Swiss youth international Michael Fray and he will probably be the main man to watch if he remains at the club. 12 times Swiss league winners FC Zurich played in the ECL in 09/10, beating Milan on the way and have qualified for EL in 2 of the last 3 seasons, albeit they have never been past the group phase.
Rapid Wein, the side we defeated in the ECW final in 1985, have decent pedigree; they’ve been in the EL group stage 4 times but never won through to the knockout stage. Ex players include majestic Milan forward Dejan Savicevic, bearded loon Trifon Ivanov and of course Hans Krankl who also managed the club for a spell. Unlucky Polish outfit Legia Warsaw won their league at a canter by 10 points and demolished Celtic in the qualifier before the result was overturned due to them fielding an ineligible player. Their Serbian winger Miroslav Radović was top scorer with 14 last season and they also have Vladimir “Lado” Dvalishvili a Georgian forward who also got 10 goals. Their set piece expert is Tomasz Brzyski who got 10 assists in their championship season. Last time in the EL they finished last in a crud group in 13/14. Finally, Slovenian’s representatives NK Maribor have won their domestic league 12 times and are a decent outfit with a rampant attacking trio all of whom got into double figures last season. Bosnian Nusmir Fajić (16) Frenchman Mendy (14) and Brazilian tavares (13) bagged a colossal 43 goals between them. They also got out of the group phase last time, albeit in a poor pool that included Wigan, before narrowly losing to eventual winners Sevilla in the 2nd round.
Pot 3 Team to avoid: Ludogorets Razgrad – Something of a journey into the unknown and an opponent with a proven winning mentality who steamrollered their group last season.
Pot 3 Group C Ideal Opponent: Estoril Praia – Didn’t win any of their group games last time and with key players and their manager departed they appear in freefall.
Pot 4 Teams
Last season’s Slovakian Champions Slovan Bratislava won their domestic league at a canter by 12 points last season. The club have a bruise brothers strike duo in the shape of Robert Vittek and Pavel Fort, both of whom are six footers and got into double figures last season. Their best showing in the EL was in 2012 when they finished bottom of the group with just 1 point, so not very good then. Serbian side Partizan Belgrade lost their domestic championship by a point to Red Star last season. Sala ilic is their 36 year old captain with the goal threat coming from 6ft 4inch monster Petar Škuletić who was both last season’s top scorer (11 goals) and main creator (9 assists).
Dynamo Moscow are a direct, long ball outfit who will look to swing in crosses and put opponents under an aerial bombardment. The focus of their approach is one time toffee target Kevin Kuranyi and they also have towering goon Chris Samba in their ranks. Former Man Utd left back Alex Buttner also joined their ranks in the summer but their key player is definitely Russian International midfielder Alex Kokorin. Romanian side Petrolul impressed in the last round with a 4-1 win at FC Viktoria Plzeň (who were expected to go into Pot 2) to take the tie 5-2 on aggregate. One of the goals came from their controversial skipper Adrian Mutu, formerly of Chelsea and Fiorentina. They have a tough match up against Dynamo Zagreb in the playoff but given the momentum from the Plzen game I fancy them to win through.
European Cup runners up in 1979, Malmo’s ex players include Ibrahimovic and Litmanen, but there are few such stars in their current roster. Winger /forward Markus Rosenberg had a rubbish spell at West Brom but has sparkled in a less challenging league – he’s the division’s top creator with 10 assists. The goal threat will come from him and forward Guillermo Mollins. Fellow Scandinavian’s Aalborg of Denmark are likely to be the lowest ranked side in the EL Group Phase. Their finest hour in recent times in European competition was in 2009 when they reached the ECL Group Phase, finishing 3rd in their group with 1 win, against Celtic.
Belgian cup winners Lokeren finished 5th in last season’s Jupiler League and possess the league’s golden boot winner in Tunisian ‘hitman’ Hamdi Harbaoui who plundered an impressive 22 league goals last time round. They narrowly lost in the play off to the very competent Plzen last season but I reckon they will have a bit too much for Hull when the sides meet next week. Portuguese League Cup runners up Rio Ave finished a lowly 11th in their domestic league last season, just 8 points off the bottom and not much is expected of them this time round. They’re a physical side and pulled in the most yellow cards (109) in their domestic league last season.
Turin based outfit Torino rather fortuitously qualified for the EL after Parma were turfed out of the competition due to tax issues. Even then they only crawled over the line by virtue of a marginally better goal difference than Milan. Top scorer Immobile has buggered off to Dortmund so goal scoring responsibility will rest with key creative spark Allecio Cerci – rumoured to be in Martinez tractor beam – who scored and created freely last year.
Ligue 1 outfit En Avant Guingamp won the French Cup last season but only avoided relegation by 2 points, having suffered a meteoric demise having been 5th at one stage. They are quite reactive and recorded the third lowest possession share in their domestic league and also the most crosses in the division. Their current outfit includes ex Everton full back Lars Jacobsen, which speaks volumes. Some of their more famous ex players include Drogba, Koscielny and Malouda, but this is no such vintage. Fellow French outfit Saint Etienne finished 4th in the French top flight last season through in no small part to Turkish forward Melvut Erding who was Les Verts top scorer with 11 goals. The club’s finest hour in Europe was in 1976 when they finished runners up in the European Cup.
Finally, Feyenoord secured qualification for the EL but have since had to endure their annual squad shake down with key men Graziano Pelle (26 goals) departed to Southampton and key defenders Martins Indi,Stefan de Vrij and Daryl Janmaat also been on the move to richer climbs. Attacking midfielder Jean-Paul Boëtius weighed in with 19 goals / assists last season and has been retained so will be the key threat, as will a whole host of new academy graduates from their seemingly endless pool of talent at Varkenoord. We met them once before in 1996 when they knocked us out of the ECW.
Pot 4 Team to avoid: Torino – If they can keep hold of Cerci then they will give anyone a game. A dangerous opponent.
Pot 4 Ideal Opponent: Aalborg – The lowest ranked side expected to make it through to the group phase and minus some of their better players from last season.
That’s all for now folks. Stay tuned for more Europa League nerding when the draw is made later this month and a reminder that our Europa League A-Z which details stadium information, attendances and logistical intel on the cities of potential opponents can be found here.