Valencia. Sevilla. Benfica. Juventus. Four instantly recognisable names of European football and the final four in this season’s Europa League. Three games stand between these teams and glory but which of them will get the glory?
Serie A’s dominant force over the last almost three seasons are continuing their domination as they look set to complete a hat-trick of titles this season. At the time of writing, they sit eight points clear with five games to go having lost just twice all season. Yet, for all of their league domination, they have been unconvincing in cup competitions both domestic and European. An early Coppa Italia exit at the hands of Roma came not long after a poor Champions League group where they dropped down to the Europa League after winning just one of their six games. Performances in the Europa League have not been convincing either. Trabzonspor gave Juve a few scares before ultimately losing out. Fiorentina had Juve on the edge in the round of 16 before a moment of quality from the timeless Andrea Pirlo sent Juve through. Even their quarter final victory over Lyon was close with the French side almost getting a result in Juventus Stadium. Juventus, to their credit, have made it to this stage though despite the scares.
Juve also have by far the strongest squad in the competition. Built around a defence containing Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci with the legendary Gianluigi Buffon behind them, Juve are a formidable side. Andrea Pirlo pulls the strings from midfield, aided by the tireless work of Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba and supplying a strike force including a reinvigorated Carlos Tevez and Spanish international Fernando Llorente. Add in players the quality of Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephen Lichtsteiner and, on paper at least, Juventus have a squad that is capable of not only winning the Europa League but challenging in the later stages of the Champions League. They are without doubt the favourites to win.
Portugal’s dominant side this season are well on their way to winning their first league title since 2010, sitting 7 points clear of second place Sporting Lisbon with just three games to go. They have lost just the once in the league and sit in the semi-finals of both the League Cup and Portuguese Cup and have to play bitter rivals Porto in both. Like Juventus, their Champions League was disappointing from the view that they ended up in the Europa League but, in reality, their exit was only via the head-to-head record with a solid Olympiacos side. They have breezed through the Europa League though, easily swatting aside PAOK in the round of 32 and AZ Alkmaar in the quarter finals. There was a slight scare in the round of 16 against Tottenham but not enough to stop Benfica from comfortably progressing to this stage.
It’s hard not to say that Benfica have the second best squad at this stage of the Europa League. With Luisao and Ezequiel Garay providing a solid foundation for the side, they have a number of exciting and deadly attacking players. Nicolas Gaitan is a proven threat from the wing while Eduardo Salvio excites on the opposite flank. Oscar Cardozo provides the proven goal threat up front with Rodrigo and Lima providing extra mobility and goal scoring potential up top. Add in the emergence of young Serb (and summer signing) Lazar Markovic as an attacking force and Benfica are a real threat to any side. There are question marks over the squad though. Maxi Pereira is and has been the first choice undisputed right back for Benfica but he has a tendency to be a bit of a hothead and pick up needless yellow and red cards for petulance. Also, with the departure of anchor man Nemanja Matic to Chelsea in January, the midfield lacks some physicality and solidity which could leave the lack of pace of Garay and Luisao exposed against good sides.
Currently sitting fifth in La Liga, Sevilla are 6 points off of the Champions League places in Spain with five games to go. They didn’t fare so well in the Copa del Rey, falling at the first hurdle to second tier Racing Santander. The Europa League has been a mixed bag for Sevilla this season. After blasting through the qualifying rounds against Mladost Podgorica of Montenegro and Slask Wroclaw of Poland (scoring 18 goals in the process), they qualified from their group as winners and undefeated. After squeezing past Slovakian side Maribor by the odd goal in seven and fierce rivals Real Betis on penalties, Sevilla swept aside Porto with a crushing second leg victory in Seville booking their semis berth.
On paper at least, Sevilla’s squad is not as impressive as Juventus’ or Benfica’s. That is not to say they lack quality though. Federico Fazio is a good defender while Marko Marin and Ivan Rakitic are excellent playmakers. Jose Antonio Reyes on his day is unplayable while Kevin Gameiro is a proven goal scorer. The star of their season has undoubtedly been Colombian striker Carlos Bacca. A summer signing, Bacca has torn up La Liga defences this season and many of Sevilla’s hopes rest on him. There are some concerns with the squad the main one being depth. Back-up options include Daniel Carrico and Stephane M’bia both signed on loan after poor spells at relegated Premier League sides last season. However, there is an air of solidity to the Sevilla squad overall.
Currently in eighth place in La Liga, Valencia has had a mixed season. A managerial change midway through has brought little to shout about bar the semi-final appearance. Their Copa del Rey hopes were dashed by Atletico Madrid in the round of 16 and their European campaign has been a bit sketchy at times too. They bounced back from an opening day humbling at home to Swansea to win their group before easing past Dynamo Kiev and Ludogorets in the rounds of 32 and 16. They were on the edge of elimination against Basel in the quarters after a 3-0 defeat in Switzerland but a 5-0 demolition at the Mestalla saw them through in the end.
Valencia’s squad is definitely the weakest of the four due mostly to the financial issues that have crippled them in the past few years. Stars like David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mata have been sold in recent years to raise funds and they’ve been replaced by players like Philippe Senderos. There is some real talent in the Valencia squad though. Diego Alves and Vicente Guaita are two excellent goalkeepers that provide a solid base while captain Ricardo Costa is a good defender. Sofiane Feghouli is a creative spark with Eduardo Vargas providing some more excitement on loan from Napoli but the main talent in the squad is young striker Paco Alcacer. At just 20 years old, the marksman’s hat trick against Basel was integral to Valencia’s progression and his seven goals in the Europa League make him the highest scoring player left in the tournament and only one behind top scorer Jonathan Soriano of Red Bull Salzburg. There are some question marks over the defence and the fact that they are consistently inconsistent.
This is titled “Who Will Win The Europa League?” after all so not making a prediction would make this all completely pointless. Therefore, I fancy Juventus to just sneak past Benfica in the first semi on either away goals or penalties to set up a final with Sevilla who will beat Valencia by at least two clear goals on aggregate. The final will see Juventus triumph in their stadium 2-1 after extra time to win their first European trophy since the Intertoto Cup in 1999.
Do you agree with this prediction? If not, who do you have as winning the Europa League? Let us know in the comments below.
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.
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.