Athletic Bilbao= Black
Athletic Bilbao= Red
While the Europa League has been the source of much joy with the quality of football and also the emergence of fresher faces into the competitive European mix, the format appears to detract much from the tournament’s value.
The group phase has been labelled excessive and even if you took away UEFA’s dramatisation of the draw, the group phase draw was quite an arduous process. The groups drawn are interesting in their own ways and make up a competition that is much more competitive and cosmopolitan than its more prestigious sister. Despite the difference in lustre, there is plenty to look forward to over the coming months from the Europa League as noted below.
This is one of the tightest groups in this year’s draw. Brendan Rodgers’ project at Liverpool has not started well and this will be a real test of his side. Udinese continue to be a selling club so improvement continues to reduce in margin but with Antonio Di Natale still lurking around, they’ll not be an easy prospect. Young Boys are not a team to belittle and will pose plenty of problems while Anzhi Makhachkala will probably looking to win the group with the world’s highest paid player Samuel Eto’o likely to be high up the scoring chart.
Sales Point: Eto’o and Guus Hiddink are back in Europe as part of an Anzhi team that will be looking towards the knockout rounds. With Udinese, Liverpool and Young Boys to contest, this group should be highly entertaining.
If just for one game…: Anzhi Makhachkala - Liverpool (a rather horrid trip that will test Rodgers' ability)
The holders couldn’t have an easier group really. The intrigue lies in just how open the contest will be to follow Atletico through to the next phase. Viktoria Plzen would appear most likely but their Israeli and Portuguese
counterparts will not have a better chance to go into 2013 still in European competition.
Sales Point: How many goals will Falcao get in this group?
If just for one game…: Atletico Madrid - Academica (if Falcao plays, netting any less than twice would be a disappointment)
Two former Champions League regulars, with a good third side complete with likely whipping boys. Monchengladbach were excellent last season and while their biggest stars have moved on, the reinforcements mean that they will provide a genuine threat to the bigger seeds. Marseille and Fenerbahce should have enough to progress but this group is one of the most likely to see a big seed miss out on progressing.
Sales Point: Monchengladbach’s presence in European competition adds the ideal cherry to the cake providded by the established names of Marseille and Fenerbahce.
If just for one game…: Fenerbahce - Marseille (fairly obvious reasoning behind this)
Newcastle will be confident of progressing from this group. While Bordeaux look good, Club Brugge have seen much better days as have Maritimo (remember their games with Leeds some years back?). Of course Newcastle need to actually want to progress which thanks to recent English efforts in the Europa League is always a question mark. You’d like to think Alan Pardew will show European competition of any kind the upmost respect.
Sales Point: The Toon Army are back on tour and have landed some pleasant and not greatly daunting destinations in the group phase.
If just for one game…: Bordeaux - Newcastle United (great test of Newcastle’s European credentials)
It’s a group that will be ignored by a lot of people. People might even skip the spiel on this group. However, those European Football Experts won’t. There are plenty of stories in this group. Steaua provide entertainment in whatever situation thanks to Gig Becali’s ownership. Stuttgart and Copenhagen are good enough to target the top spot in the group. As for Molde, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s flirtation with Aston Villa came to nothing and they just might pose a threat for second place in the group. The games would appear all to be fairly close contests.
Sales Point: You could at least make half decent arguments for each team for progress. That in itself is quite something for a group in European competition.
If just for one game…: FC Copenhagen - VfB Stuttgart (the second seed hosting the top seed: the default option)
The top two seeds should provide some enjoyable matches and Juande Ramos’ Dnipro will be there to capitalise on any slip-ups from them. With the greatest of respects to AIK, it would be quite something if they managed to grab a point from this group. After watching them in the qualifying stages, it’s fair to say against opposition like this they will struggle.
Sales Point: Napoli and PSV are good to watch. Dnipro and AIK might be more cautious but there’s some genuine entertainment value in this group.
If just for one game...: Napoli - PSV (sorry, another default but looking at the two teams, this should be one of the most entertaining games of the group phase)
The composition of this group is very likeable. Basel and Genk competed in the Champions League last season and Basel in particular impressed in progressing to the knockout rounds. Big players have left the Swiss club but you’d bet on their conveyor belt to produce more talent to keep them in European contention. Sporting looked better under Sa Pinto’s tutelage and it is difficult to look past them progressing although equalling last season’s semi-final exit might be a stage beyond them. They need to show improvement on the national stage more and it’s this that creates an opening in the group that Genk and also Videoton will like to exploit. The sight of Paulo Sousa gracing a touchline in Europe is good enough reason to think Videoton to do well. Isn’t it?
Sales Point: The aforementioned likeable group composition and the openness it exudes.
If just for one game…: Sporting - Videoton (Paulo Sousa back in Portugal is enticing enough)
Inter’s reconstruction seems to be demonstrating optimism for the future despite the present being rather poor. Them not being in the UCL evokes memories of Moratti’s experiments prior to Mourinho and the public unveiling of Calciopoli. The trips they will be making will probably be uncomfortable for the likes of say Wesley Sneijder but you’d expect them to possess enough ability to go further in the competition. Rubin Kazan remain good enough to keep the Italian side on their toes while Partizan Belgrade are Partizan Belgrade. An honourable mention goes to Neftci from Azerbaijan. Neutrals would do well to cheer on a team nicknamed the Oil Workers.
Sales Point: Watching Massimo Moratti squirm in Belgrade, Kazan and Baku. Granted he’s been to Kazan before but that had the comforting site of Champions League livery. Now with the colours of Europa League adorning stadia, he'll be hoping it's a brief detour before returning to the shades of blue they're more accustomed to.
If just for one game…: Neftci - Inter (playing in Azerbaijan will not have been a preferred scenario for the Nerazzurri plus these fixtures illustrate the contrast that will exist no matter how more inclusive qualification is made to be)
Lyon shouldn’t be here. Those were the words etched on the face of Jean-Michel Aulas throughout the draw. If they want to, they could go quite far here. Aulas’ expression might differ slightly but it’ll still maintain the same message. As for their fellow contestants, Athletic Club (Bilbao to most) remain the hipsters choice with Marcelo Bielsa staying albeit the signs are showing that the relationship might not last a whole lot longer. Want-away striker Fernando Llorente, the sale of Javi Martinez plus a reported altercation with ground staff seem to have knocked back the idea that the Basque club will be able to muscle in on the top four in Spain. They still possess enough to cause Lyon a few difficulties and should go through. Sparta Prague don’t inspire many words in the argument for their chances of further progress although they could at least stifle the bigger seeds enough to cause some entertainment. As for Hapoel Shmona, for the casual observer you’re more likely to think of The Knack's only hit record.
Sales Point: The names involved sell this fairly easily.
If just for one game…: Athletic Club - Lyon (San Mames’ last season in use and the welcoming of a team who will soon be moving into their very own “Land” offer two rather different perspectives on the game slowly getting a little closer)
This looks quite good for Spurs. Under Harry Redknapp, this would be horrific. The press would laugh along with him as he struggled with the pronunciation of opposition players. He would also treat the whole thing with great disdain. Now under Villas-Boas, Spurs will make more of an effort and for that, Spurs supporters should thank Daniel Levy. They possess more than enough talent to navigate this group and coupled with Maribor’s inadequacy and Panathinaikos’ financial predicament having an increasing negative effective on the team’s efforts, they should do it without too many problems. Lazio will hopefully not cast aside their chances for a league preference and judging by their impressive start to the season, there is plenty of positivity for them to jump above the stumbling Greek giants.
Sales Point: Andre Villas-Boas. Imagine him reading out the Panathinaikos team.
If just for one game…: Lazio - Tottenham (If both teams go for it, this will be a good game to watch)
There are too many groups aren’t there? Bayer Leverkusen will be expecting to get through this group unscathed but the contest between the other three teams will be close. Metalist Kharkiv did well last season and for that they will be expected to go through. Rosenborg are looking better, not at the level they used to be at but they will certainly rate their chances as will Rapid Vienna. How many ultimately empty statements do you want?
Sales Point: Leverkusen are managed by co-managers and that’s not a regular thing in the professional game.
If just for one game…: Metalist Kharkiv - Bayer Leverkusen (good old default)
Hannover 96 and Twente seem to be getting cosy in this. Levante will be delighted and revelling in their first ever European campaign. The Dutch and German teams might just be getting a little too cosy and the Spaniards just
might get through at the expense of one of them. Helsingborgs might get a few points, perhaps three when they host Levante but going further looks just beyond them given who they need to beat to get there.
Sales Point: So few people will bother with this group that you can be interested in it and look cool. Maybe. Probably not but it will bolster your European football expertise.
If just for one game…: Levante - Twente (it’s not the most glamorous of games for the Frogs faithful but they’ll be enjoying the experience because that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?)
Atletico Madrid= White
Athletic Bilbao= Black