Maybe it’s because UEFA elected to construct an additional tournament, the soberly dull Europa Conference League, but this year’s Europa League is actually a fairly fascinating tournament this year.
There was a time that the Europa League was heavily mocked in England; this was squarely during the period when Bolton Wanderers were taking part, but its lustre has been all the more polished in recent years.
There are some who still hark back to the original UEFA Cup, a forerunner for the Europa League, which was a very strong alternative to the European Cup. The old format being a straight knockout competition all the way through, but there’s no doubt that Europe’s second-biggest tournament is now a lot healthier than for some time.
Just look at the recent winners of the competition. Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, and Chelsea have all picked up the trophy, and this year’s iteration includes a number of Europe’s elite.
Perhaps what the Europa League has going for it, over comparisons with the Champions League, is that a number of sides could prove victorious whereas in the showpiece event the chances are that prospective winner’s number maybe three or four (Liverpool, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City).
There are a host of teams with a decent shout of picking up the silverware, which does, of course, come with the carrot of a Champions League berth next season. The range of possible winners is large, and Europa League tips from Squawka could aid your predictions for the overall winner; in the meantime, let’s take a look at who could be going all the way to the final in Seville.
The British Contingent and the Other Big Guns
Leicester City and West Ham are both top of their respective groups, with David Moyes’ side having already booked passage to the knockout phase, and Rangers are also safely ensconced into the next stage, and all three sides could go longer into the competition.
The Hammers have been in great form in the Premier League, and if they continue to push for a top-four spot, then they may well look to continue fielding squad players in their Europa League outings, which has worked well so far but may run out of steam against superior opposition.
Brendan Rodgers, whose future at Leicester City seems unclear, will be hoping that the Europa League would offer his side an easier route to the Champions League next season, having choked in recent campaigns when sitting in the top four much of the last couple of seasons.
Rangers, with Giovani van Bronckhorst now at the helm, are still leading the Scottish Premiership, but the allure of a first European trophy since 1972 may well still be a prize that the Ibrox giants really make a push for in the new year.
French sides Lyon and Monaco are also through while the likes of Bundesliga teams Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen look strong. Then you have Napoli, who went off like a train in the Serie A title race, and Real Betis, who have impressed in La Liga this season.
The Champions League Cast-Offs
Along with those teams mentioned, there will be an assortment of teams that drop from the Champions League into the competition, and again here, there are a fair few big teams who could be pushing for a European trophy.
Indeed, in each of the last 11 Europa League finals, on only two occasions did the finalists not include at least one team that has taken that fortuitous route.
Borussia Dortmund and Zenit St Petersburg have already been assured of the third-place spot in their respective groups, offering them the Europa League adventure, and there are many truly mammoth sides that could join them.
AC Milan, Barcelona, Benfica, Atletico Madrid, Red Bull Leipzig, Atalanta, and Sevilla could all be fighting for the second biggest prize in European club football.
Xavi, having recently returned to the Nou Camp, will, of course, be hoping his side manage to book passage to the Champions League knockout stage, but in all likelihood, they’ll need to return from a trip to Bayern Munich with at least a point in order to make that dream a reality.
Similarly, AC Milan, who have been impressive in domestic action, will need to beat Liverpool to have any genuine chance of staying in the Champions League. Fortunately for Stefano Pioli’s side, it’s likely Jurgen Klopp will field a weakened team, and that may give the Italian giants a shot at progress.
In terms of the Europa League betting, it’s currently West Ham who are the favourites with most bookies, but this is chiefly down to it being unclear who will be in the competition from the Champions League route.
Backing Borussia Dortmund might be a safe bet to make and backing with Barcelona or AC Milan if they fall into the competition would be an obvious option though clearly, one imagines the odds offered won’t be all that lucrative.