Dnipropetrovsk is a city of just shy of one million inhabitants in eastern Ukraine and, in a matter of days, it could be etched onto the map of European football for a long time to come. The locality’s flagship football team, FC Dnipro, is gearing up for the biggest occasion in its history when it takes on reigning title holders Sevilla in the Europa League final. From watching how joyously their players and supporters celebrated after the semi-final victory over Napoli, it would take some explaining to them of how blase an attitude English clubs and media have towards the tournament. Much like Alaves in 2001, Middlesbrough in 2006, Fulham in 2010 and Braga a year later, this is Dnipro’s day in the sun – although they will hope to avoid the fate of those other four teams, all of whom saw their extraordinary European journey end in defeat in the final.
While the odds on Myron Markevich’s team getting to the Warsaw showpiece would have been lengthy even at the outset of the knockout rounds in February, Dnipro are no fly-by-nights. This is the culmination of a steady period of improvement, one which has seen them go close to lifting a first Ukrainian title in the last couple of seasons. In fact, a second-place finish 12 months ago ensured that Dnipro began this season in the Champions League qualifiers, where they lost to FC Copenhagen.
They would have been confident of emerging from a group containing Inter Milan, St Etienne and the little-known Azeri club Qarabag, but they just about managed to squeeze into the knockout rounds despite winning just two of six group games. An assertive victory over Champions League dropouts Olympiakos, who had beaten Juventus earlier in the season, in the round of 32 set up a last 16 clash with Ajax, another team to fall into the Europa League from its more illustrious cousin. The Dutch giants may not have been the force of old, but were still expected to progress. A last-gasp goal in extra time in the Amsterdam second leg sent Dnipro through on away goals and now they began to believe.
Club Brugge awaited in the quarter-finals. With the Belgians knocking out Liverpool’s conquerors Besiktas, the red half of Merseyside must have watched on glumly – or maybe not, depending on their stance on the Europa League’s worth. A cagey two-leg tie was settled by one Yevgen Shakhov goal and the fairytale continued into the last four, where Napoli lay in store. There was much talk about how Rafael Benitez looked primed to win his fourth European trophy with a fourth different club, but a late Yevgen Seleznyov goal in Naples made it 1-1 and put Dnipro in the box seat and the same player struck the only goal of the second leg to spark jubilant celebrations in Kiev. That’s right, Kiev. Due to Dnipropetrovsk’s location so near the epicentre of the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, the club has has to play ‘home’ games a full 200 kilometres away in the nation’s capital city. The players of Dnipro have not only made their fans happy; they have brought happiness to fans who have been forced to endure carnage around them.
The club had been given a flickering mention on Sky Sports News in January 2014 when, on transfer deadline day, star man Yevgen Konoplyanka was heavily linked with a move to Liverpool, one which didn’t come off. He stayed and, while the Reds have since spent big bucks on players who have largely disappointed, the Ukrainian midfielder has a European final to anticipate. Goalkeeper Denis Boyko has also emerged as a breakthrough figure in this season’s Europa League, putting in two outstanding performances against Napoli, while defender Dmitro Chygrinskiy briefly played in the same Barcelona team as Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Ibrahimovic. Former Blackburn misfit Nikola Kalinic has revived his career in Ukraine and any Georgians among you will be aware of Java Kankava’s presence in the midfield. Dnipro will reprise their familiar role as underdogs for the final next week, having been cast in such a role every step of the way since the group stage. However, Sevilla won’t be fooled into thinking that a second successive Europa League triumph is a formality.
It may surprise you to know that, while Dnipro have yet to win the Ukrainian league since it began in the early 1990s, they have twice been champions of the Soviet Union in the Communist era. This is despite having competition from a Dynamo Kiev team that is much stronger than the current batch, plus Spartak Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg and a host of clubs from other former Soviet states. In both seasons following those title wins, they reached the quarter-finals of the old European Cup, so Dnipro have a track record in doing well on the continent.
However, 27 May 2015 will be a day like no other for the club. Even if they go down fighting, it will still represent a fantastic achievement that they have made it this far. Of course, for all the heart-warming chapters that have been written to date, the last one could yet turn out to be the most joyous of all. If Dnipro do lift the trophy in Warsaw on Wednesday, English clubs will get a damn good look at how much happiness this supposed waste of time of a tournament can bring to footballers and supporters.
Victory in Milan, but is this another false dawn for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger?
Arsenal were triumphant in Milan despite their recent miserable form.
Arsenal ended their losing run of four matches with an excellent performance away to AC Milan in the Europa League. This competition has the potential to save the Gunners season and the commitment from every player suggested that they want to go all the way.
They were coming up against a team full of confidence under Gennaro Gattuso. Milan hadn’t lost a match since the end of December. The Serie A club hadn’t conceded a goal in six and had won five of those inside ninety minutes.
These sides came into this fixture in remarkably different form, but football is played on grass and not on paper.
Despite Milan having more attempts, it was Arsenal who created the better chances. They had a couple of half-chances early on before the opening goal.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has had a hot and cold start to life in a Gunners’ shirt, but he was one of the best players on the pitch in Italy. His goal was emphatically taken as he drove the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
It is important to capitalise when you are on top, especially away from home in European competitions and Arsenal did just that. As the first-half progressed, they continued to create the better opportunities. Both Danny Welbeck and Mkhitaryan had good chances to double the visitors’ lead, but they were squandered.
In stoppage-time of half-time, Arsenal scored a second to give them a commanding lead in the tie. It was a great move from the team and Mesut Ozil found Aaron Ramsey who coolly rounded Donnarumma before putting the ball into the net.
The first-half performance from Arsenal was one of the best that supporters have seen this season. They were better all over the pitch and showed the work rate that they had lacked in previous weeks. Milan pushed in the second half, but they couldn’t penetrate the Gunners’ defence.
Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi were both excellent. Arsene Wenger will be hoping that both are returning to their best after some uncharacteristic errors in previous matches. The centre-back pairing made eight ball recoveries and were always in the right position on Thursday.
Patrick Cutrone is a teenager with a big future, but the young striker had no luck out of the Arsenal defence and that will encourage the manager.
Another player to emerge with credit is Danny Welbeck. The ineligibility of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the injury of Alexandre Lacazette means that the Englishman started the game up front for Arsenal. It was a huge opportunity for him after being pushed down the pecking order at the club and he took it with both hands.
The Englishman worked tirelessly and caused problems with his movement.
Although his final product wasn’t great, he was a constant threat and led the defensive effort from the front. Welbeck will never be a leading Premier League striker, but he is effective in matches such as this one. He deserves more opportunities during the run-in.
It would be too soon to get carried away for Arsenal fans. There are still questions regarding Arsene Wenger and the work rate of the players, but this was an excellent performance that finally provides the club with positive momentum. They have had a miserable few weeks and the supporters can get excited about their team once again.
When the draw was made, a lot of supporters checked their expectations when it came to the Europa League. Milan were the overwhelming favourites, but Arsenal have taken a dominant position in the tie and should be able to finish the job in London.
If they can do that, they will move into the quarter-final stage. Although it will be difficult to win it, they will have as good a chance as any.
There have been many false dawns for Arsenal in recent years and this could be another one. That said, it takes enormous character to go away to a huge stadium like the San Siro after a poor run of form and win comfortably.
Considering the criticism that they have had for their lack of desire, few would have thought the Gunners to be capable of a result like this.
It is now up to Wenger to prove that he can get this level of effort and performance out of his players on a regular basis. The Frenchman remains in a difficult position with no margin for error. If he is going to keep his job, he needs to finish the season strongly and win the Europa League.
It won’t be an easy challenge, but this performance and result will give him hope that he can upset the odds to claim his first European trophy.
Everton’s 4-1 defeat to Southampton adds to growing problems at Goodison Park
Everton’s 4-1 defeat to Southampton this Sunday left them just two points above the relegation zone in a season that is going from bad to worse for the Toffees. The four goals conceded by David Unsworth’s side meant they have now let in 28 goals from just 13 matches.
Although Gylfi Sigurdsson’s long range strike was a positive for Everton, there was little else to write home about in a game that Southampton dominated.
It has been well documented that the Toffees’ summer recruitment has been a big reason behind their lack of success, with insufficient signings in key areas. One of those areas was highlighted profoundly on Sunday, with Leighton Baines going off with a knee injury in the first half.
Everton did not have another natural left-back in the match-day squad, so centre back Ashley Williams was brought on to replace the Englishman, with Aaron Lennon shifted into a wing-back role.
Lennon is not a natural in that position and is far more effective further forward and, somewhat predictably, two Southampton goals originated from his side.
Although this defeat comes as a fresh blow to Unsworth, it is the managerial uncertainty surrounding the club that is causing Everton major issues.
Ronald Koeman was sacked by chairman Farhad Mohsiri nearly five weeks ago now, and the club still seem no closer to appointing his successor.
Martin O’Neill was touted as the leading favourite for the vacany earlier this week, but whether he would be tempted into returning to club football after a stint with Republic of Ireland remains to be seen.
Marco Silva has also been approached, with Everton rumoured to be willing to pay £20 million in compensation to prize him away from Watford, according to the Hertfordshire Mercury.
Nonetheless, the Hornets have firmly stated that they will not allow their manager to take the reins at Goodison Park.
Unsworth was put under more pressure on Thursday, with Everton losing 5-1 to Italian side Atalanta, their heaviest home loss in Europe.
It is difficult to blame the former Sheffield United defender for most of his side’s troubles currently, with Everton’s players clearly shot of confidence.
He has made some major changes to the club’s personnel, switching from the winger-less system that Koeman employed, while bringing Aaron Lennon, Kevin Mirallas and Sandro Ramirez back to the first team.
He has also given promising full-back Jonjoe Kenny a run in the team ahead of the under-performing Cuco Martina.
It can also be argued that Everton are missing the experience and quality of long-term absentees Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley and Yannick Bolasie – three players who would surely be some of the first names on the team sheet at Goodison Park.
However, all of the players above were injured during the summer, a window in which Everton spent nearly £200 million on players.
Gylfi Sigurdsson has shown glimpses of his quality, scoring an excellent goal against Southampton, and Jordan Pickford has performed as well as could be expected, but many other Everton signings have taken time to settle into the side.
Davy Klaassen, signed from Ajax for £23.6 million, and Martina did not make it into the match day squad against Southampton. Meanwhile, Sandro had struggled until his goal against Atalanta on Thursday.
Wayne Rooney, who is the Toffees’ 2nd top scorer, has even been dropped to the bench in recent weeks.
Overall, Everton desperately need a managerial appointment to bring stability and confidence to a squad that is currently sliding towards the Premier League relegation zone.
Although Toffees fans are against the appointment, Sam Allardyce could provide the self-belief necessary to steer the club clear of the drop.
He is renowned as a specialist in helping teams survive, but it is worth remembering the success he had in charge of Bolton, getting to the last 16 of the 2005/06 UEFA Cup and coming within one place of qualifying for the Champions League during his final season in charge of the Trotters.
Regardless of who does take over at Goodison, the key for Everton is getting a manager into the club ahead of January and a transfer window that could be crucial in defining the club’s season.
Arsenal’s Europa League group – who are their opponents?
For the first time in over two decades – and for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s tenure in north London – Arsenal will be playing their European football on Thursday nights in the Europa League.
Failure to finish in the Premier League top-four has left the Gunners fighting it out in second-tier competition, yet few will bet against them emulating rivals Manchester United and going all the way.
A favourable draw has merely compounded their position as favourites, with Wenger’s men pitted in Group H against BATE Borisov, German outfit FC Koln and Serbian side Red Star Belgrade.
To save you from having to Google their opponents – a la Tottenham’s Danny Rose – The Boot Room has taken a look at the three teams that stand between Arsenal and a spot in the Europa League knockout stage.
Perhaps the toughest side that Arsenal will face during the group stages, BATE Borisov have Champions League pedigree and last featured in 2015/16, facing then reigning champions Barcelona.
On that occasion they held a good account for themselves, missing out on the knock-out stages by a single point after beating Italian side Roma and earning a point against Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen.
On a domestic level they have dominated the Belarus league in recent times – winning the previous eleven titles – although they are struggling this season, sitting in third place after 19 matches, to date.
A Champions League qualifier defeat to Slavia Prague of the Czech Republic over two legs will hardly leave Wenger – or Arsenal fans – quaking in their boots when they meet in the group stages.
The Bundesliga side may be embarking on European football for the first time since the 1992/93 season but they certainly have previous in this competition, ending runners-up in 1985/86 edition.
On their day they can be a dangerous side – last season they held Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to away draws in the league – and they will look to stifle Arsenal’s attacking style of play.
But with their main-man Anthony Modeste, who scored 25 goals in the Bundesliga, leaving for a lucrative deal in the Chinese Super League the Germans shouldn’t prove to be much of an obstacle.
Red Star Belgrade
Completing the line-up for Arsenal’s group is Serbian outfit Red Star Belgrade, a side that have reached the group stage of European competition for the first time since the UEFA Cup in 2007/08.
To make it to here they’ve already beaten Floriana of Malta, Irtysh Pavlador of Kazakhstan, Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic and Russia’s Kuban Krasnodar so they’re already well-versed this year.
Red Star – the lesser known side of Serbia’s capital alongside Partizan Belgrade – were narrowly pipped to their domestic title last year by their rivals but, on their day at home, they’re a tough side.
The two sides have actually met in Europe before, way back in 1978 when the north London side actually lost 2-1 in the last-16 of the UEFA Cup, and revenge will no doubt be on the cards this year.
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