The Europa League, which is the second-tier European club championship, carries a great deal of prestige, reputation and significance for many clubs all over Europe. Along with the Europa League title, the winners of the competition qualifies for the UEFA Super Cup and are guaranteed a place in the following season’s UEFA Champions League group stages.
The Europa League round of 32 ties got underway last week, with the first legs witnessing some dramatic matches and results. The second legs of the round of 32 ties are due to be played this week and the winners from which will qualify for the round of 16.
There are some top clubs that will aim to reach the final stages of the competition, while some underdog squads could spring a surprise or two. That being said, here are some of the main candidates to win the Europa League this season.
Manchester United have one foot in the Round of 16 after a fantastic 4-0 away victory over Real Sociedad in Turin. Real Sociedad simply had no answer for the pace, energy and ruthlessness of Manchester United’s attackers. After the emphatic first-leg defeat, there’s really no way back for the Spanish side.
Blessed with a squad of unbelievable talents and seasoned campaigners, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be viewing this competition as an opportunity to win his first trophy as the club’s manager. The Red Devils lost in the semi-finals of the Europa League last season, so Solskjaer and co. would be raring to go all the way and even win it this time around.
Paco Alcacer and Fer Nino gave Villarreal a two-goal advantage going into the second leg of the Europa League round of 32 against Red Bull Salzburg.
Villarreal have one of the most competitive squads in the Europa League capable of giving problems to any club present in the tournament. They won their group that consisted of Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Qarabag and Sivasspor.
Even with a two-goal advantage going into the second leg, the tie isn’t done at all and if Red Bull Salzburg come out flying this week then we are in for a treat. However, with perennial Europa League winner Unai Emery at the helm, the Yellow Submarines have to be considered serious candidates to win the prestigious competition.
Ajax entered the Europa League at the knockout stage after finishing third in their Champions League group behind Liverpool and Atalanta. They won the first leg 2-1 against Ligue 1 table-toppers LOSC Lille in France last week, thanks to late goals from Dusan Tadic and Brian Brobbey.
Ajax are on a seven-game winning run in the Eredivisie and will be further boosted with a superb away performance at Lille. Under Erik ten Hag, they play a fluid, possession-based football with their dynamic midfielders and attackers. With a richly-talented squad at Ten Hag’s disposal, watch out for de Joden!
Just like their English rivals Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur have one foot in the Round of 16 following a 4-1 victory over Austrian outfit Wolfsberg.
Tottenham aren’t firing all cylinders in the Premier League, having lost four out of their last five games. They look like a team devoid of energy and flair at the moment, thus, the big first-leg victory over Wolfsberg should give Jose Mourinho’s men much-needed confidence.
Mourinho prides himself on winning silverware above everything else and with Spurs’ chances fading of getting into the top four, the Europa League offers him the best route for a trophy and Champions League football next season. One shouldn’t bet against the Portuguese tactician adding to his 2017 success with Manchester United!
AC Milan are having a very good season and remain second in the Serie A, four points off league leaders Inter Milan. After a decade in the shadows of Juventus, AC Milan are the best they’ve been in years and a lot of credit goes to manager Stefano Pioli.
The Rossoneri returned to Europe again with a squad fully rejuvenated through some excellent transfer business in the last two windows. The likes of Pierre Kalulu, Sandro Tonali, Diogo Dalot, Brahim Diaz and Jens Petter Hauge came through the front door in the summer. The January signings of Mario Mandzukic, Soualiho Meite and Fikayo Tomori have added serious quality to the squad, while the presence of serial winner Zlatan Ibrahimovic remains immense and the veteran Swede will look to pick up some silverware this term.
While a 2-2 draw with Crvena Zvezda in the first leg keeping the tie very much in the balance, you’d expect Pioli’s men to turn up and complete the job in Milan.
AS Roma have been looking decent in Serie A this season and finished top of a tricky group that included Young Boys, CFR Cluj and CSKA Sofia.
Chris Smalling’s return to Rome has been a big boost and the summer arrival of Pedro to join the lethal Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Borja Mayoral and Edin Dzeko in the attack has made I Giallorossi dangerous going forward. They have scored 47 goals in 23 league games—a testament to AS Roma’s attacking punch.
Unfortunate to be eliminated in the round of 16 by eventual winners Sevilla last season, Paulo Fonseca’s side, who hold a 2-0 first-leg advantage over SC Braga, have the quality and depth this term to be considered serious contenders to win the Europa League.
Despite ending on the wrong side of a seven-goal thriller (4-3) against Young Boys in the first leg, Bayer Leverkusen are one of the talented sides in the competition.
With the smart Peter Bosz in charge, Bayer Leverkusen have the talent and the coaching to flourish in Europe. The January signing of Demarai Gray from Leicester City has bolstered the German outfit’s attack that consists of Leon Bailey, Patrik Schick and Moussa Diaby.
If Bosz, who guided Ajax to the Europa League finals in 2017, manages to guide Bayer past Young Boys, the Bundesliga side could prove a tricky opponent in the latter stages of the tourney.
Arsenal have come mightily close to lifting the Europa League recently, losing in a semi-final and final in the last three years. After getting knocked out at the hands of Olympiacos in the round of 32 last season, the north Londoners will be looking to go all the way in Mikel Arteta’s first full season in charge.
The Gunners, who drew 1-1 with Benfica in the first leg of the round of 32, have endured a poor season in the Premier League, as they sit 11th in the table and 11 points adrift of the top four places. Thus, their best chance of playing Champions League football in the 2021/22 campaign lies in winning the Europa League.
In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Kieran Tierney, Willian, Bukayo Saka and summer addition Thomas Partey, Arsenal do have the squad to reach the final in Gdansk, Poland. Also, winning a cup competition might well be the only way Arteta clings to his job at the Emirates Stadium.