They finally got around to drawing the Europa League group stage early Friday afternoon, and the results should result in an exciting few months of football in Europe in the second-tier tournament. There is currently no overwhelming favorite, and a couple of groups are relatively top heavy. Some of the “royalty” that avoided qualification have an easy path, while a club playing in their first European competition in a generation is favored over clubs that have been there more recently.
Here’s how the groups stack up:
Let’s take a look at some of the individual groups:
With last season’s champion Chelsea automatically qualifying for Champions League, Arsenal, the club the easily handled in the final, is back as the club that went the farthest in the tournament last season. By our math, their draw is pretty middle of the road, though they did have the pleasure of drawing against Eintracht Frankfurt, a Europa League semi-finalist from last season.
Joining them in Group F is Standard Liège, who joins in the group stage again for the second consecutive season (they were elevated after KV Mechelen were banned from the tournament) and Vitória de Guimarães, a qualifier that has a 5-1-0 record (with a +15 goal differential and no goals allowed) over that past six weeks.
Last season’s semi-finalists are favored in the group, according to FiveThirtyEight, with Arsenal the favorite to win the group in 55% of simulations. Eintracht has a solid 74% chance of finishing in the top two spots as well, leaving Standard Liège and Vitória de Guimarães in the role of spoilers in the group. If the Portuguese club can continue their level of play from qualifying, they might have a better chance due to all the actual game time, but this group truly is Arsenal’s to lose.
“Group of Death”
Unlike Champions League, which has a clear “Group of Death” among its eight groups, the distinction is a little hard to identify in Europa League due to the wide disparity of clubs that participate in the tournament. Nevertheless, two of the groups tied using our rating metric as the “hardest” groups, including one led by English “royalty” and the nominal favorite in the tournament at the moment.
Group L has Manchester United at the top, who are in Europa League this season after a disappointing 6th-place finish in the Premier League last season. By appearances, the group seems to be one that ManU should dominate, but it is also populated by clubs that the Red Devils struggle against back in England over the past couple of seasons, let alone in Europa. Astana, the champions of Kazakhstan, are no stranger to Europa League, and are playing in their fourth straight group stage. Partizan just played through a 4-1-1 stretch in qualifying, and has a history against Manchester United in Europe (though it was over 50 years ago).
This could go swimmingly for Manchester United, allowing the club to get some solid reps against some squads that will help them against the bottom half of the Premier League. Or it could be a surprise loss away – say to Astana after traveling to Kazakhstan – from having to dig deep and win the group. FiveThirtyEight makes them the overwhelming favorite in the group – 78% chance to win and 94% chance to advance – and they open as slight favorites to win the tournament overall. But their inconsistent play over the past couple of seasons makes me want to wait before anointing them as group winners and writing them in for the knockout stages.
The Surprise (Group) Favorite
Two seasons ago, Wolverhampton Wanderers were dominating the Championship on their way to promotion. They entered last season’s Premier League with high expectations, but I don’t think anybody saw them qualifying for Europe. After Manchester City did the treble last season and won both the EFL Cup and FA Cup, the Wolves 7th-place finish was enough to dump them into qualifying for Europa, where they have utterly dominated. They have yet to lose, compiling a 6-0-0 record while scoring 19 goals (and surrendering only five).
Despite being drawn from Pot 3 – they hadn’t played in Europe for four decades prior to this season, resulting in a UEFA coefficient in the mid-teens – they are currently the favorites to not only advance from Group K, but to win it outright. FiveThirtyEight gives them an 83% chance of advancing, and a 56% chance of winning the group. All those reps against the top clubs of England last season will aid them against Beşiktaş, Braga, and Slovan Bratislava, who are roughly equivalent to Championship-level clubs according to FiveThirtyEight’s Global Club Soccer Rankings. A home match against Braga on 19 September should be a great indicator if the Wolves can live up to the hype, or if they were simply afforded an easy qualifying draw.
We’ll be back with a more in-depth look at some individual match-ups as the group stage progresses over the next few months, so be sure to check back often so you don’t miss anything!
Until next time…
 We used six factors in making our determination: average UEFA rank, average UEFA coefficient, the UEFA rank difference between the Pot 1 club and the other three clubs (1v2, 1v3, and 1v4), and the “pot average,” which measures the individual averages of the clubs in their individual pots for the draw. We then ranked these factors one through eight and took an average of the six individual factors.