The Europa League group stage resumes this week with 24 matches – one today and 23 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, the current favorite is a club that is still toiling away in Champions League, with Red Bull Salzburg having a 10% chance of winning the tournament according to FiveThirtyEight. Of the clubs currently playing in Europa League’s group stage, however, the favorite is Manchester United, and the Red Devils currently have an 8% chance of taking home the cup.
Our first preview of Thursday’s action starts off with one of the surprise clubs of the group stage thus far, with CFR Cluj welcoming Rennes to Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu in Romania. The match kicks off at 6:55pm CET (12:55pm EST) on Thursday night.
Like we did with our Champions League previews earlier this week, we’ll cover how things are going for the clubs back home, and recap what has happened through the first half of the group stage 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
CFR Cluj was founded in 1907 in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prior to 2002, the club spent much of their existence in the lower levels of Romanian football. They returned to Liga I in 2004, and won their first league title during the 2007-08 season. They have won four other more league titles since, including the last two as they have rounded into one of the best clubs in Romania.
Through 15 matches this season, CFR Cluj is again at the top of the table. The defending champions also lead the league in scoring (35 goals) and goal differential (+22), led by two Romanian forwards in Alexandru Păun and Ciprian Deac, who have each scored six goals during league play.
Founded in 1901, Rennes has never won a league title in Ligue 1 in France, and last won a Ligue 2 title in 1983. They are also a surprise participant in Europa League this season after finishing tenth in Ligue 1 last season, achieving qualification through a surprise win in the Coupe de France over Paris Saint-Germain last April.
This season, they have again struggled, and are currently in 14th place through 11 matches with only 15 points. Before a win on 27 October against Toulouse, Rennes had been winless in seven matches (0-3-4) after opening the season with three straight wins. However, there is some good news in their early struggles, with the club’s four losses all coming by only one goal. There is still plenty of time left in the season for the club to at least match their finish from last season, if not improve on it.
Since CFR Cluj returned to the top tier of Romanian football, they have participated in European football during multiple seasons. They have reached the group stage of Champions League three times, and advanced to the Round of 32 in Europa League after finishing third in one of those seasons.
CFR Cluj began the season in the first qualifying round of Champions League, and advanced through to the playoff round, defeating Astana, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Celtic before losing to Slavia Prague in the playoff round. They compiled a 3-2-3 record during qualification. They were then drawn into Group E of Europa League – along with Celtic, a club they defeated a few weeks prior – and currently find themselves in second place in the group.
Rennes is playing in their second straight Europa League after reaching the Round of 16 last season, where they lost to eventual finalist Arsenal. That run was the farthest they’ve ever advanced in major European competition, but it will take some work over the next couple of months to match that performance this season.
They began this season in the group stage, but have yet to win a match while going 0-1-2 and finding themselves in fourth place at the moment. A strong showing in a Matchday 1 draw against group-leader Celtic looked like a quality start for the club, but they have since lost two straight.
The only other time these clubs met was on Matchday 3, and CFR Cluj came out on top, winning 1-0 in France on a goal by Deac. This was a very unexpected result, with the Romanians entering the match with only an 18% chance to win, compared to Rennes’ 58% chance. For one of the worst clubs in Europa League – at least according to FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI) – it is surprising to see CFR Cluj in second place at this stage in the tournament.
The Romanian champion’s strong play thus far has made them a slight favorite in the match – per FiveThirtyEight – with the analytics site giving CFR Cluj a 38% chance of picking up the three points. However, they see the match as fairly close, with Rennes favored to win in 35% of simulations, one of the smallest spreads among the 24 matches this week.
Overall, CFR Cluj does have some work to do, and they will be underdogs in the final two matches of the group stage against Lazio and Celtic. A win against Rennes in this reverse fixture would likely improve their odds of advancing to the Round of 32, but there will be some work to do. Either way, the Romanian champions should be proud of their performance in Europe this season regardless of the ultimate outcome through December.
Until next time…