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2011-12 UEFA Europa League Group Phase Preview

August 29, 2011

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 (Miodrag Belodedici’s ball-opening skills probably didn’t help pacing matters either). 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 competition. Despite this difference in lustre, there is plenty to look forward to over the coming months from the Europa League as noted below.

GROUP A

Tottenham Hotspur /Rubin Kazan /PAOK /Shamrock Rovers

The first group contains the biggest seeds of the draw with the lowest seeds in the forms of Tottenham Hotspur and Shamrock Rovers. The disdain that Spurs Coach Harry Redknapp has shown the Europa League may well mean this group will be more open than one would expect as he has said that he will use the competition as a ground to blood his younger players and so their rivals in the group may look to take advantage of such a situation. Many would say that Spurs and Rubin Kazan will comfortably progress from the group and with good reason given the talent at their respective coach’s disposal as well as both clubs achievements in the Champions League in recent times. Confidence at the North London club appears rather low and they’ve been a little lucky that this has been clouded by their great rivals Arsenal’s troubles. It is unlikely that the seeding will be disrupted by the close of the group stage but PAOK and Shamrock Rovers will at least provide the group with its romance especially the side from the Emerald Isle.

Sales Point: The aforementioned romance on offer from Shamrock Rovers will brighten up the group and its hoped that they just might spring a surprise or two.

If just for one game…: Shamrock Rovers – Rubin Kazan (The Russian club are taking this competition much more seriously than Spurs and despite the geographical merits on offer from Spurs, Kazan’s strengths will make this a much better challenge for the Irish side).

GROUP B

FC Copenhagen /Standard Liege /Hannover /Vorksla Poltava

An open group in truth and with Hannover overcoming Sevilla in qualifying, the German side will be pushing the higher seeded sides all the way. Copenhagen will be disappointed to have not qualified for the Champions League and it’ll be interesting how they go about their business. That excellent group of players at Standard (Defour, Witsel, Mbokani and co.) have by-in-large moved on but Standard are still a strong team. For Vorksla Poltava, it is a step into the unknown as you’re likely to hear from every commentator intent on hiding their lack of knowledge of the club with clichés galore. Here you’ll find just the one cliché.

Sales Point: Three teams that don’t look too far apart in standing mean that this group could be one of the best contested. Add to that, Vorksla Poltava’s desire to make a name for themselves (one more cliché, sorry) and it’s not as poor a group as some (mostly British) pundits claim.

If just for one game…: Hannover – FC Copenhagen (This match is a chance to see whether the Danish side have fallen from their standards of recent Champions League campaigns and the German outfit will be an interesting opponent for them in such an assessment).

GROUP C

PSV /Hapoel Tel-Aviv /Rapid Bucharest /Legia Warsaw

Some have labelled this group as PSV and three others. A brutal assessment but one created via the simplicity of reputation. This is actually quite an open group and will provide plenty of entertainment with all the teams in the group capable of qualifying from it.

Sales Point: The open nature of the group is an attractive prospect. While most expect PSV to qualify, the clubs from Israel, Romania and Poland can all make qualification a perfectly viable target.

If just for one game…: Hapeol Tel-Aviv – PSV (a tricky trip to Israel for the Dutch team and one where the expectations placed upon them will be tested most).

GROUP D

Sporting CP /Lazio /FC Zurich /Vaslui

Sporting are a team going through something of an overhaul and with a new Coach in Domingos Pacienca, they look to be building solidly for the future. However, this is Sporting so it’ll be a path with plenty of highs and lows but they’ll be happy with this group. As a group this could be classified safely as “progressive”. FC Zurich appear to go in-and-out of the European fold in a yo-yo like fashion (admittedly a rather good yo-yo) and are seeking greater consistency while Lazio appear on the verge of Champions League qualification and have made some very interesting acquisitions over the summer. If the likes of Djibril Cisse and Miroslav Klose can find their feet early for the Rome club then they could be a real threat. With Italy’s impending loss of an Champions League place, things are going to be a lot tougher in the fight for places and Italian clubs will be scrutinised a lot more on the European stage due to this fall from grace. Lazio could’ve had a much harder group on their hands but any slip-ups here will only add weight to justifying Serie A’s loss and Bundesliga’s gain.

Sales Point: Sporting and Lazio are undergoing new projects respectively and it’ll be interesting how they cope with the threat of what is quite an erratic Swiss outfit in FC Zurich.

If just for one game…: Sporting CP – Lazio (an interesting clash between the two bigger seeds in the group and with their respective progressive states, it could prove highly entertaining)

GROUP E

Dynamo Kyiv /Besiktas /Stoke City /Maccabi Tel-Aviv

Stoke’s Europa League debut sees them have three tricky trips to make. After Andy Gray’s now immortal comments on a wet and windy night in Stoke, it’ll prove interesting how their opponents in this group fare. All-in-all, this is a very challenging group for all concerned. Stoke’s intentions are unclear but if their qualifying round games are to provide indicators then they look to be taking a positive attitude to the Europa League and will help make this a very attractive group. Besiktas and Dynamo Kyiv are both established European teams with the latter looking to claw back its place as Ukraine premier team from Shakhtar Donetsk. It won’t happen this season granted but a successful Europa League campaign will go some way to the reclamation they seek. Maccabi Tel-Aviv are not to be ignored but look much more likely to fall into the role of king-makers in this group. Besiktas’ unpredictable nature makes this group even more exciting.

Sales Point: If Stoke ignore the general ignorance some display of the Europa League and take to the competition with a continued positive attitude then this could be an exciting group. Perhaps more result-wise than beautiful football admittedly.

If just for one game…: Besiktas – Dynamo Kyiv (the best football match this group has to offer on technical value).

GROUP F

Paris SG /Athletic Bilbao /Red Bull Salzburg /Slovan Bratislava

A delightful grouping of four teams of differing levels of quality yet there is a brilliant air of surprise that lingers within the names in this group. Paris SG are flush with Qatari cash and with Javier Pastore pulling the strings on the pitch and Leonardo seeming to have some power off it, things are looking bright for the Parisian underachievers. They will be favourites due to the abundance of quality in their squad yet to a lot of neutrals it is not them that bring the most intrigue. It is instead that of the man on the bench at Bilbao. Marcelo Bielsa has earnt plaudits in the world of football thanks to his commitment to attractive football and for developing formations most managers would ignore. The calculated risks of Bielsa make this a group that warrants close viewing. Red Bull Salzburg (to UEFA, its FC of course) seem to be a team that struggle with making that next leap forward on the European stage but they will provide colourful opposition to their rivals in this group. Add to that a Slovan Bratislava side who disposed of Italian giants Roma in the qualifying rounds and this group has all the makings of being one of the best and certainly most entertaining of this season.

Sales Point: Leonardo, Javier Pastore, Marcelo Bielsa, Fernando Llorente and a dose of Red Bull. Add those elements together and entertainment is virtually guaranteed.

If just for one game…: Athletic Bilbao – Paris SG (read the above if you’re unsure as to the reasoning behind this selection)

GROUP G

AZ Alkmaar /Metalist Kharkiv /Austria Vienna /Malmo

It’s a group that has been ignored by a lot of pundits due to the lack of a current big name. AZ have seen better days while Metalist Kharkiv have been derided unfairly by many simply due to their name. Austria Vienna are still in the shadows of Red Bull Salzburg in the perception of Austrian football while Malmo look to return to former glories. This will likely turn to be the group of the Europa League aficionado in truth but it shouldn’t be ignored by many as the teams involved especially Metalist Kharkiv are intriguing to watch and it’s open as to who will qualify from it.

Sales Point: It would appear to be a very open group and if nothing else, you’ll be doing real European football a service by observing what has been an unfairly derided group.

If just for one game…: Metalist Kharkiv – AZ Alkmaar (the two bigger seeds in this group could prove entertaining viewing in this clash at a ground which will host three Group B matches in the upcoming Euros next summer).

GROUP H

Braga /Club Brugge /Birmingham /Maribor

This is a group that falls bang in the middle of expectation in the Europa League framework. Braga were a revelation in last season’s Europa League and while they have a new Coach at the helm, they possess enough quality to be a serious threat this time around as well. Club Brugge are looking to make a name for themselves again in line with Belgium’s rise in the European game. You would expect the top seeds to progress but it won’t be too comfortable for them. Birmingham were impressive in their disposal of Portuguese side Nacional in qualifying and appear at least so far to be more enamoured with their European exploits than the league. If that continues then this group could be very interesting, even more so with a resurgent Maribor looking to bring Slovenian club football forward positively into a more public continental setting.

Sales Point: Braga and Club Brugge are not worlds apart in quality and Birmingham and Maribor are hardly pushovers despite a status divide. This group is not quite the closed case many would have you believe.

If just for one game…: Birmingham – Club Brugge (European nights at St.Andrews will be savoured and something the Midlands club are unlikely to see again for some time. Their hosting of Brugge will be an interesting encounter).

GROUP I

Atletico Madrid /Udinese /Rennes /Sion

This group looks on paper to be up there with Group F in the technical excitement stakes but there is a cloud hovering over this group with the possibility of Sion being excluded from proceedings. However, if the Swiss team are expelled then Celtic will be added to the fold and it’ll be a real test of not just them as a club but indeed Scottish football as a whole which is seen by many to be at a new low point. If Sion do remain, then they are likely to assume the role as whipping boys as they have three opponents who all possess an abundance of riches. Atletico continue to possess great quality and the signing of last season’s top-scorer Falcao will put them high in public expectations. Udinese were impressive against Arsenal but missed out on Champions League qualification. They continue to be something of a development ground for players rather than establishing a name for themselves in their own right but despite most of their best players leaving in the summer, the squad under the guidance of Francesco Guidolin is more than good enough to do well here. Rennes are a team who are on the rise and could really push the two bigger seeds all the way.

Sales Point: Three teams that tend to play exciting and attacking brands of football could make this group unmissable. This group also possesses two of the best finishers in Europe in Falcao and Antonio Di Natale. Masses of goals are a minimum expectation.

If just for one game…: Udinese – Atletico Madrid (a contest that on paper could be one of the very best that this group phase has to offer).

GROUP J

Schalke 04 /Steaua Bucharest /Maccabi Haifa /AEK Larnaca

As long as they don’t find the burden of expectation too much to bear then this should be a comfortable group for Schalke. It would be a huge shock if the German side failed to progress. There is some openness to this group with the three other teams looking to qualify. AEK Larnaca will of course enjoy the experience of European football but are likely to struggle against their opponents of greater size on the European stage. The fight is between Maccabi Haifa and Steaua Bucharest for second place or so it would seem.

Sales Point: Schalke just might find the expectation of success a little difficult to deal with. It’s far from likely but you never know with football.

If just for one game…: Steaua Bucharest – Schalke 04 (the most testing fixture the German club will face in this group. Steaua will be hoping to further their ambitions and so might well surprise in this game).

GROUP K

Twente /Fulham /Odense /Wisla Krakow

It would be a surprise if the final group table differed from the seedings of the group. The point some have made that due to Fulham having Martin Jol as Coach and the fact he’s Dutch means he must know everything Twente have to offer is poor and unfair on the Dutch side. Fulham have been an entertaining proposition in European competition and will likely be again but Odense and Wisla Krakow are not the walkovers they have been perceived to be. Odense nearly surprised Villarreal in the Champions League qualification and so will definitely pose a real threat to Fulham and Twente’s aspirations.

Sales Point: It’s a group which will pose a lot more problems for the English side than most expect. An unfortunately uncommon sales point but it is one nonetheless.

If just for one game…: Fulham – Odense (Odense will be looking to make a statement of intent and qualification is an attainable target. Victory at Craven Cottage would go some way to achieving such an objective.

GROUP L

Anderlecht /AEK Athens /Lokomotiv Moscow /Sturm Graz

The quality of competitive openness that endears many to the Europa League is evident in the case of this group. All four teams can be optimistic of their chances of progress and while Anderlecht will be favourites, Lokomotiv Moscow and Sturm Graz are strong lower-seeded clubs. AEK Athens might be the team that are pushed out of the progression picture.

Sales Point: Any of the teams from this group can progress. A sales point that so few groups in any UEFA competition can truly use with good reason.

If just for one game…: Sturm Graz – Anderlecht (a game where the closeness of the group is likely to be evident. The Belgian club are likely to be victors but the Austrians will be no pushovers)

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