With 24 matches over seven hours on Thursday, Matchday 1 of Europa League is officially in the books. Though the bulk of the matchups went exactly as expected, there were definitely some surprises among the results.
With three months of action remaining before the knockout stage begins in February, every club is still technically alive, with only one club – Norwegian champion Rosenborg – having less than a 10% chance of advancing to the Round of 32. Chances are, however, that at least one club that will meet at Stadion Energa Gdańsk on 27 May are not even yet in the tournament.
Here’s a brief look at what went down across Europe yesterday:
Largest Result Variance
Based on pre-match predictions from FiveThirtyEight, there were nine results that were unexpected, ranging from wins by “underdogs” Arsenal (5% variance at Eintracht Frankfurt) and Slovan Bratislava (7% variance at home versus Beşiktaş) to a very surprising win from F91 Dudelange at APOEL (Dudelange had only a 5% chance of winning entering the match).
Four results, including that result from Cyprus, had variances over 40%, and three of those results were because the underdog ended up winning the match. In the fourth, Espanyol and Ferencváros played to a 1-1 draw (22% chance), despite the Spanish club winning in 64% of simulations.
Let’s talk a bit about the largest variance result first before moving on to the two that will likely have more impact in the actual results this round. Per FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), Dudelange is the worst club in either UEFA draw, with an SPI of 37.3. As mentioned above, they only had a 5% chance of winning the match, and about the same odds of advancing through to the knockout stage.
But after getting out to a 2-0 lead, then hanging on for a 4-3 victory (in Nicosia), they find themselves second in the table behind Sevilla… but still with the worst odds (28%) in their group of finishing in the top two and advancing. This could be because they have two matches remaining against Sevilla, the second highest-ranked club in the draw (per SPI). They’ll play the Spaniards back-to-back (albeit three weeks apart) over Matchdays 3 and 4, but a win against Qarabağ at home in three weeks would do wonders for those advancement odds prior to the Spanish double.
Most Surprising Result
The strangest result of the day had the second-highest variance. Borussia Mönchengladbach, our favorite German club, was absolutely destroyed by Wolfsberger AC of Austria. As favorites (65%). At home. But down 3-0 at halftime to the upstart Austrians, Gladbach just couldn’t figure it out, eventually succumbing 4-0, a score that would have been expected the other way around.
This is only Wolfsberg’s second foray into European competition, their last ending at the hands of Borussia Dortmund in the third qualifying round of the 2015-16 tournament. As recently as 2011-12, they were playing in the second echelon of Austrian football. Gladbach, meanwhile, has two European cups (the 1975 and 1979 UEFA Cups) and over 50 seasons in the German Bundesliga. With the win, Wolfsberg now has the second-best odds to advance out of Group J (57%), behind Roma (82%) and ahead of Gladbach (44%). Their rematch from Graz on 28 November during Matchday 5 will take on extra importance for the German squad, especially if they struggle over the next four matches.
After a dominating start in their return to European competition after four-plus decades away, Wolverhampton Wanderers opened as favorites against Braga of Portugal, winning in 60% of match simulations. But despite playing host in the match, they could not secure even a point, falling 1-0 on a late second half goal from Ricardo Horta.
As I mentioned in my match preview, I was wary in the Wolves’ qualifying performance in Europa League. They played some of the worst clubs in the tournament until the play-off round. Furthermore, they remain winless back in the English Premier League, and were coming off a huge 5-2 loss to Chelsea (also at home) five days prior.
Still, I expected them prevail, and the loss only slightly dampened their chances in the group. While they have fallen behind Braga in overall odds to win the group, they are still given a 64% chance of advancing, and play three matches against the two clubs beneath them – Beşiktaş (33% to advance) and Slovan Bratislava (29%), respectively – before their 28 November rematch with Braga in Portugal. I’ll give them a pass thus far, but continued poor performance in England, as well as poor results from Turkey or Slovakia in October, might mean the shine is off the Wolves.
One Match Might Not Mean Much
Ultimately, one match may not end up being a big deal in the end as we progress through the next three months of action. With the weird results and matchups in Europa League, chances are that at least a few of the clubs currently at or near their groups – CFR Cluj, Dudelange, and Slovan Bratislava are my early bets – will find themselves heading home in December, while one or two surprising teams will come away with surprise wins and find a way to advance (see BATE Borisov last year).
Either way, we’ll be watching, and expect us to preview the compelling matches along the way.
Until next time…
 For variance, I’m simply subtracting the actual result from the highest expected result based on FiveThirtyEight pre-match predictions. For example, Eintracht Frankfurt was given a 40% chance of winning at home versus Arsenal, and Arsenal had a 35% chance of winning. The absolute value of the difference is what I am calling variance in this regard.