With 24 matches over eight hours last Thursday, Matchday 3 of Europa League is officially in the books. It was a mixed bag for the results, with the favored clubs winning in half of the matches, but with two of the “worst” clubs picking up unexpected victories.
No club has officially clinched a spot in the Round of 32, and we have yet to see a club be eliminated either. However, a baker’s dozen worth of clubs have less than a 15% chance (per FiveThirtyEight) of advancing to the next round, with nine of those clubs having secured one point or less through three matches.
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, with clubs like Red Bull Salzburg and Bayer Leverkusen struggling in Champions League but among the favorites to finish in third place in their group in the “senior” tournament.
Here’s a brief look at what went down across Europe last week:
Unlike Champions League, which currently has three dominant clubs that lead groups with nine points, the more wide-open Europa League only has two clubs that are perfect in the tournament thus far.
One of those clubs played in the final last season, losing to Chelsea in a match that wasn’t close. But the Gunners of Arsenal have found success thus far in the group stage of this season’s Europa League, winning all three matches by a combined score of 10 to 2. The closest of those three matches happened last Thursday in London, with Portuguese club Vitória de Guimarães taking a 2-1 lead into halftime at Emirates Stadium. But two late goals from Nicolas Pépé – both scored after the 80th minute – ensured a 3-2 victory for the hosts and helped secure their place at the top of Group F, nearly assuring the Gunners advancement while all but eliminating Vitória de Guimarães from contention.
The other perfect club so far has been Sevilla of Spain, who entered the tournament as the highest-ranked club per UEFA rankings. They have found little struggle thus far, holding all three opponents scoreless while scoring seven goals of their own, including a 3-0 victory over F91 Dudelange last Thursday. And unlike Arsenal, they have a massive lead over their second-place club, with Qarabağ only finding four points thus far. A win in the reverse fixture against Dudelange next week will likely clinch Group A for the former Europa League champions, or at least ensure that they can finish no worse than second in the group.
The Bottom Feeders
As mentioned above, there are 13 clubs that currently have less than a 15% chance of advancing. Among those clubs are five clubs that have yet to secure a point, including the aforementioned Vitória de Guimarães that fought so hard against Arsenal last week.
Most of the clubs in this group are not surprising; weak clubs from weak associations, or simply poor performing clubs from some of the larger associations in Europe. Entering the group stage, it would have been easy to predict that a club like Astana, the champion of Kazakhstan, would find themselves pointless at this stage, especially after watching them lose 6-0 to AZ Alkmaar last week.
A surprising member of this group, at least based on name and association ranking, is CSKA Moscow, who has looked anything like a club that belongs in this tournament. They currently have the second-worse goal differential behind Astana, and have scored only one goal thus far, an early goal in what would become a 5-1 loss to Ludogorets Razgrad during Matchday 1. The former Russian champions – and a Top 50 club in Europe per UEFA ranking – have not scored in over 260 minutes of match time, the longest such gap in the tournament. Their inability to find the net could see them preparing to return home as early as next week.
Two clubs were heavy underdogs last week, only to find wins and save, for time being, their chances of advancing to the next round.
One club, Hungarian champion Ferencváros, took advantage of CSKA Moscow’s poor play to win 1-0 in Moscow last Thursday. The Hungarians entered the match as huge underdogs, favored to win in 14% of FiveThirtyEight simulations (CSKA Moscow won in 62%). But they nevertheless pulled it off, and find themselves only two points back of second place Ludogorets in Group H, with a home match against the same CSKA Moscow club looming next week.
Romanian club CFR Cluj also exceeded modest expectations last week, also winning 1-0 on the road against Rennes to move into second place in Group E. Cluj is one of the worst clubs in the tournament, at least according to FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index, but yet they have nearly a 50% chance of advancing to the Round of 32 after two surprising wins in their first three matches. That’s not quite the second-best odds in the group – Lazio is slightly better at 56% percent despite only scoring three points thus far (and losing to Cluj on Matchday 1), but the plucky Romanian champions are likely closer to advancing than even its supporters thought possible.
Three Down, Three to Go
Of the clubs actually playing in the tournament at the moment, Manchester United remains the favorite, though three other clubs join them with over 5% chance of winning the tournament. And though no club has yet clinched a spot in the Round of 32, a dozen clubs find themselves with greater than an 84% chance of doing so half way through the group stage.
It remains to be seen if any of those clubs can pull away from the pack pending the arrival of allegedly stronger clubs from Champions League, but the action next week in both tournaments will be a good indicator of just that, so we’ll be following along to see what happens and previewing some of the matches that matter the most next week.
Until next time…