It would not be UEFA if they did not manage to over complicate things, and when Barça and Seville fans saw their respective clubs drop into the Europa League, they may have thought the pathway to at least the later stages of Europe’s second cup would be straightforward. Unfortunately that is not the case, either in terms of the process or the teams blocking their way.
The Europa League has never quite caught fire, seen as a distraction for the bigger clubs but with Barcelona dropping down into it, it could well be the best thing that has ever happened to the competition. Suddenly the world’s attention will be on it. Football fans in China will suddenly be tuning in on a Thursday. Even in the US where Barcelona enjoy a big following, fans will be watching in bars in New York, wagering on a soccer betting site in PA. The Europa League could go through a renaissance. The one fly in the ointment however could be that there is a very real possibility they won’t progress.
Those falling down from the Champions League are not only unseeded for the play-offs, but if they progress from that will be unseeded for the round of 16 too. That means no Spanish teams will go into the last 16 seeded.
Barcelona face the sternest test. Napoli, currently fourth in Serie A, were impressive in the group stage, progressing courtesy of their 3-2 victory over Leicester. Napoli themselves will be eager to get their hands on their first major European silverware in more than two decades. Spain’s other representatives have been handed easier draws, but the lack of seedings means they will have their work cut out if they are to progress. So who outside Spain are the biggest threats?
Europe’s other contenders
Dortmund had a poor Champions League group by their standards, but are currently second in the Bundesliga. With Bayern already clear, and Champions League qualification all but nailed on, Marco Rose can concentrate on the Europa League.
Lyon are having a terrible time domestically, currently 13th in a not particularly strong Ligue 1. They have been saving their best performances for the Europa League however, winning Group A at a canter. Admittedly Group A was not filled with the best teams, but as the saying goes, you can only beat what is in front of you and Lyon did that in five of their six games.
Monaco had a lot tougher test, but showed their class, topping Group B and beating Real Sociedad in the process. Niko Kovač’s side may not score that many goals, but they are very hard to break down with one of the most frugal defences in the competition.
Spartak Moskva were perhaps the biggest surprise of the group stage. In a group with Leicester and Napoli, they came out on top, beating Napoli twice and scoring five times against the Italian side. No team will relish going to Moscow needing a victory or even a draw and in Aleksandr Sobolev they have a quality striker in the form of his life.
Another away fixture that takes a certain mindset not to be overawed by is Galatasaray. Winning any group containing Lazio and Marseille is going to be tough but they did it with aplomb conceding just three goals in the process.
West Ham are having the kind of season their fans could only have dreamed of last August. Fourth in the EPL, they have not just been winning games but winning games well, against the best teams in the league, to confirm their status as among those best teams in the league. The Europa League was predicted to be a distraction they did not need, but despite utilising almost a second string in Europe, they qualified with a game to spare. The East London side are certainly capable of winning the Europa League, it is just if the season does end up catching up with them.