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 first is the closest match of the day, with Saint-Étienne playing host to VfL Wolfsburg. The match kicks off Thursday night at 6:55pm local time (12:55pm EST) from Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in central France.
Like we did with our Matchday 1 previews, 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
Saint-Étienne was founded in 1919 by the employees of a local grocery store chain and have found a lot of success in Ligue 1 in France, though not as much recently. They do have a record ten Ligue 1 titles, though the last one came in 1980-81. As recently as 2003-04, they were champions of Ligue 2, and while they have been in Ligue 1 since that title, they have not finished in the qualifying position for European competition since the 2015-16 season, finishing just out of the zone – 8th in 2016-17 and 7th in 2017-18 – before climbing all the way to fourth last season.
It’s been a slow start for Les Verts so far this season. After eight matches, they are 2-2-4 and are currently in 19th (out of 20 clubs) in Ligue 1. Currently, their two wins on the season bookend a six match winless streak, and they have yet to win a match at home (0-2-1). With 30 matches to go, they have plenty of time to turn things around, but they have yet to look that impressive this season.
VfL Wolfsburg was founded in 1945 as an athletic club for Volkswagen workers in Wolfsburg. They have one Bundesliga title in their history, winning the title on the last day of the 2008-09 season, and have finished second one other season (2014-15). Last season, they finished in 6th place, earning the Europa League group spot when Bayern Munich won the DFB-Pokal.
Through six matches this season, they are in the same approximate location in the table, alone with 12 points (3-3-0) and one of two Bundesliga clubs (Bayern is the other) that has yet to lose this season. However, they have yet to play a club currently in the top half of the league, so their performance could shift once their schedule gets a little more difficult.
Both clubs were automatic qualifiers for the group stage this year based on their league finishes, with Wolfsburg’s place in the group stage a result of Bayern Munich’s DFB-Pokal. The “double qualification” pushed the second qualifying round entry to the 7th place club (Eintracht Frankfurt in this case), and passed the Europa League group qualification to the 6th place club.
This is Saint-Étienne’s first appearance in European competition since the 2016-17 Europa League, where they reached the Round of 32 (losing to Manchester United). Their best finish in Europe was a runners-up finish (to Bayern Munich) in the 1975-76 European Cup, the precursor to today’s Champions League. They opened this year’s group stage with a 3-2 loss to Gent in Belgium, a sloppy game featuring an own goal for each squad, and the club is currently in third place in Group I.
Wolfsburg has also been away from European competition for multiple season, last playing in Europe during the 2015-16 Champions League. They reached the quarter-finals in that tournament, including a defeat of fellow group member Gent in the Round of 16, but exited after a loss to Real Madrid.
They opened this year’s Europa League with a win over Ukrainian club Oleksandriya, winning 3-1 at Volkswagen Arena after scoring twice in the first half and holding on to win. For their efforts, they find themselves in first place in the group, on top of Gent due to the goal differential tiebreaker.
These clubs have never met in Europe, which is not surprising given their mixed histories with European competition. According to FiveThirtyEight, the road club is favored in this matchup, but as mentioned above, it is very close. Wolfsburg came out on top in 38% of simulations, while Saint-Étienne was victorious 34% of the time.
Overall in the group, Wolfsburg is favored to win (63% of the time), with their chances of advancing at 86%. Saint-Étienne currently has the third-best odds, as they are behind Gent due to their loss to that club on Matchday 1. This match is expected to be close, and based on their current domestic performances, I would expect Wolfsburg to come out on top. Group I is shaping up to be one of the more competitive groups – at least among the top three clubs, barring a surprise result from Oleksandriya today – and these clubs’ rematch on 12 December could play a huge role in determining the winner of the group.
With that match happening in Germany, it would be in Saint-Étienne’s best interest to take advantage of the home pitch in this one and try to come away with the win. Otherwise, they might be playing for second in the group or going home for the year come December.
Until next time…