The Europa League group stage resumes this week with 24 matches on Thursday all over Europe. We aren’t going to cover them all, instead focusing on four matches that have been viewed as closer than others according to various prognosticators, or feature clubs that we are following for other reasons.
At the moment, Manchester United remains the favorite to win the tournament overall, with an 8% chance of taking home the cup. However, with eight third-place clubs from Champions League entering the fray in the knockout round, a new favorite could emerge from that group. For example, Liverpool is one of three clubs with a 6% chance of winning Europa League, even though they are currently favored to win their Champions League group.
There are three matches tomorrow where the difference between the expected results is less than 10%, so we’ll cover those ones first, as well as an additional match that features two clubs battling at the top of their group after dominating performances in Matchday 1. Up next is the other match in Group I – our first preview featured Saint-Étienne and VfL Wolfsburg, also from Group I – with last place Oleksandriya welcoming Gent to Ukraine. The match kicks off Thursday night at 6:55pm local time (12:55pm EST) from Arena Lviv, a “home site” match in name only as Oleksandriya’s home stadium doesn’t meet UEFA requirements.
Like we did in our other preview, we’ll cover how things are going for the clubs back home, and recap what happened on Matchday 1 for both clubs. We’ll wrap up with a look at the history between the two clubs – if they have any – and what the odds look like for the match and beyond.
Without further ado, here’s a look at the clubs:
Domestic League Performance
Shakhtar Oleksandriya, the precursor club for the modern Oleksandriya, was founded in 1948. However, the current club is constituted from a 2014 merger between PKF Oleksandriya and UkrAhroKom Holovkivka, which saved the club from bankruptcy. The sordid history of the club, mostly caused by financial difficulties at various stages, have limited the club to only seven seasons in the Ukrainian Premier League since 1992, and their current five season stretch is the longest consecutive time they’ve spent in the top flight.
Last season, they finished in third place, their best finish ever in the Ukrainian Premier League. They have maintained that performance this far this season, and are currently alone in fourth place with 16 points (5-1-3). They are in the midst of a short four match unbeaten streak (3-1-0) which allowed them to move to the top half of the table.
Gent have played in the Belgian First Division for 80 seasons total since their founding in 1900, and have not been in what is now the second division since a one season stop during the 1988-89 season. They have one league title (2014-15) and two additional runners-up finishes (1954-55 and 2009-10) and finished 5th last season during the Championship playoffs.
After eight matches this season, they are currently in third place with 17 points (5-2-1), but they have yet to play Club Brugge or Standard Liége, the two clubs currently ahead of them in the table. They will meet Club Brugge for the first time this weekend (following this Europa League match), while Standard Liége arrives on the schedule for the first time after Matchday 4, which could impact their performance.
While Oleksandriya qualified directly for the group stage, Gent was a late addition to the Europa League field, joining the tournament in the second qualifying round after Belgian Cup winner KV Mechelen was barred from UEFA competition due to match fixing.
Oleksandriya returns to Europa League after a one year hiatus. During the 2017-18 competition, they reached the play-off round, falling to BATE Borisov. Overall, including their Matchday 1 loss to Wolfsburg, they have a 1-2-4 record in their Europa League history. They are currently in fourth place in Group I.
This is the fourth straight season for Gent in Europa League, and their best performance during that stretch was reaching the Round of 16 in 2016-17, where they lost to countryman Genk. That also marked their best performance in Europa League.
This year, they had to play through three rounds of qualification, defeating Viitorul Constanța (2QR), AEK Larnaca (3QR), and Rijeka (Play-off) along the way. Their 3-2 win on Matchday 1 against Saint-Étienne places them in second place behind Wolfsburg in Group I for the moment.
Not surprisingly, these clubs have never met in European competition due to Oleksandriya’a limited participation in UEFA competitions. The return trip to Belgium on Matchday 6 will be the Ukrainian club’s first trip to Belgium in major competition, while Gent has lost two previous matches in Ukraine, and all four matches to Ukrainian clubs (Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv) in their European history, being outscored 16 to four in the process.
According to FiveThirtyEight, the road club is favored in this matchup, and it isn’t hard to see why. Despite Gent’s (limited) history in Ukraine, they win in 42% of simulations, while Oleksandriya gets the nod 32% of the time. Gent is also favored to advance to the knockout stages 62% of the time – likely as the second-place club – while Oleksandriya has some work to do, favored to advance in only 13% of computer simulations.
The Ukrainian hosts hope to use this match to get back into the thick of things in the group, and if they win, there is a distinct possibility that all four clubs in Group I will enter Matchday 3 with three points. This group is definitely shaping up to be one of the more competitive at the moment, though if the favorites prevail in both matches (on the road) it will be the opposite.
I give the nod to Gent in this one, though I remain hopeful that all Ukrainian clubs prevail in these matches for sentimental reasons. An Oleksandriya win would not be an Earth-shattering upset, but it would definitely make the group more interesting going forward.
Until next time…