We have completed four matches in the group stage of Europa League, and unlike the Champions League, where only one club has punched their ticket to the next round, there are seven clubs in Europa that have clinched no worse than second in their respective groups:
- Bayer Leverkusen leads Group A with 9 points (goal differential of +3), ahead of…
- Zürich because Bayer leads in away goals in head-to-head matchups
- Dinamo Zagreb is undefeated in Group D and leads second place Fenerbahçe by five points
- Arsenal leads Group E, and plays the two worst teams in the group over the last two matches
- Eintracht Frankfurt leads Group H and is undefeated, including a victory over…
- Lazio, who hopes to enter Matchday 6 with a chance at the group in their rematch against Eintracht Frankfurt
- Chelsea, undefeated in Group L
These seven clubs have been assured of advancing into the next round of Europa League, where the eight third-place finishers in Champions League group stage will join the tournament. That group currently includes clubs like Tottenham Hotspur, Paris Saint-Germain, and Valencia, which is why those three clubs are in the top ten in odds for winning Europa this season. Chelsea remains favored thus far, both for their dominating performance in Group L, but also for their play in the Premier League this season.
Nevertheless, some of the most exciting action in Europa League this week didn’t involve these seven clubs, so here’s a brief look at some of the results and why it caught our attention:
Celtic 2-1 RB Leipzig
Celtic may not have moved into second place in Group B due to this victory – they remain behind RB Leipzig due to head-to-head goal difference – but they kept themselves in the tournament for at least another match. They started the group stage as the second best club in the group behind Red Bull Salzburg, but found themselves buried in third place after a Matchday 3 loss to Leipzig. By winning Thursday, however, they ensure that they could be fighting for a spot in the next round should they repeat their performance against group weakling Rosenborg in a couple of weeks, setting up a final group stage matchday where the top three clubs could be playing to advance.
Vorskla Poltova 0-1 Qarabag
Normally, a match between the bottom two clubs in a group wouldn’t attract much attention, but I like an underdog story, and Azerbaijani club Qarabağ was playing for its tournament life. With two of the groups already decided, it’s nice that we’ll have at least one more match in Group E that means something, and Qarabağ will try to keep it that way on Matchday 5 in their rematch against Sporting CP. Should they lose (or draw), Sporting joins Arsenal in the next round. A win, however, and Qarabağ would be an upset victory at Emirates Stadium away from making it to the next round. Highly improbable, but it sure would be fun.
Spartak Moscow 4-3 Rangers
Rapid Wien 0-0 Villarreal
Just like last matchday recap, I wanted to highlight the results from this group again, if only because they remain so close up and down the table. Villarreal could have pulled away a bit had they been able to defeat Rapid Wien in Vienna, but they failed to do so, allowing Spartak Moscow and Rangers to remain a point behind. This was especially surprising given Villarreal’s 5-0 defeat of Rapid Wien a mere two weeks ago. This could possibly be a group that isn’t decided until the final matchday on 13 December.
Malmö FF 1-1 Sarpsborg 08
Genk 1-1 Beşiktaş
Group I is probably my favorite group in Europa League. Four clubs from random associations – Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Turkey – that don’t seem to want to win the group. Genk is nominally in the lead currently, and they are the only club with two wins. But Malmö FF and Sarpsborg 08 have two draws – both matches between the clubs in fact – that keeps them one point behind Genk. Even Beşiktaş, currently in fourth, has four points, thanks to their victory over Sarpsborg, and only has a goal differential of -2 to overcome should it come down to that. I expect this group to go down to the wire, and if any team should be worried, it’s Sarpsborg, who has scored the fewest goals in the group – which is probably why they only have a 19% chance of advancing (according to FiveThirtyEight).
By the conclusion of Matchday 5 on 29 November, we’ll probably know at least a half dozen more participants in the next round, including some of the potential teams coming over from Champions League. Will there be any surprises remaining in Europa League? For example, should Sarpsborg overcome their long odds in Group I and advance, it would be the farthest they have ever advanced in European competition. Astana, currently leading Group K, would qualify for the Round of 32 for the second year in a row should form hold. While I don’t think that the majority of the clubs in Europa have a chance at a title – Chelsea is favored and has looked terrifying at times this season – all it takes is one match for the results to be unexpected. That’s definitely more likely to happen in Europa than it is in the other European tournament.
Until next time…
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