We are down to the final two match days in the Europa League group stage, with action for Matchday 5 kicking off on Thursday night all around Europe.
With 12 groups – 48 clubs and 24 matches total – in the tournament, we just do not have the bandwidth to cover all the matches this week. Instead of previewing the individual matches, we thought we would take a holistic look of where the tournament stands right now as we prepare for what is shaping up to be a very important Matchday 5 for a lot of clubs on the bubble.
Entering action today, only five clubs have clinched a spot in the Round of 32:
- Sevilla – Group A (12 points)
- Basel – Group C (10 pts)
- Celtic – Group E (10 pts)
- Espanyol – Group H (10 pts)
- Manchester United – Group L (10 pts)
On the other side of the coin, five clubs have been eliminated at this stage and can only play spoiler for the clubs remaining:
- Trabzonspor – Group C (1 pt)
- Rosenborg – Group D (0 pts)
- Rennes – Group E (1 pt)
- Beşiktaş– Group K (0 pts)
- Astana – Group L (0 pts)
That means that there are seven spots up for grabs over the next month, but that number could be greatly reduced by the action on Thursday night. I have identified a half dozen matches that could result in sealing up a berth for one of the clubs involved – or simply through a group into chaos heading into Matchday 6 in two weeks.
CFR Cluj (9 pts) v Lazio (3 points)
CFR Cluj has been a surprise in the tournament thus far. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index, they are the sixth-worse club in the draw. Nevertheless, with nine points through four matches, they have nearly matched the point output of the five clubs below them and are closer to advancing than many of the other clubs at the bottom of the rankings.
To do so, they have to simply draw against Lazio in Rome, a tall order to be sure – the hosts are favored to win 72% of the time in FiveThirtyEight simulations – but CFR Cluj overcame long odds in two of their three victories this round, including when these clubs met in Romania on Matchday 1. Lazio will need to win twice to advance to the next round, and with a match looming against the already eliminated Rennes in December, that could be a distinct possibility. If CFR Cluj loses Thursday night, they would have to gain a point against Celtic on the last day, which doesn’t seem quite as easy.
Arsenal (10 pts) v Eintracht Frankfurt (6 pts)
Arsenal was seemingly on their way to the Round of 32 three weeks, with Shkrodan Mustafi scoring in the 81st in Portugal against Vitória de Guimarães (1 pt), which would have also eliminated the Portuguese club from the tournament. Instead, after an added-time goal from Bruno, the Gunners instead left with a draw and a slim chance of not advancing.
They still have a 98% chance of advancing though, and garnering one point against Eintracht Frankfurt at Emirates Stadium will be enough for last season’s finalists to clinch a spot in the Round of 32. When these clubs met on Matchday 1, Arsenal was dominant in Frankfurt, winning 3-0. But Eintracht is no slouch, coming off a semifinal loss to Chelsea in last season’s Europa League. A win on the road tomorrow, and it’s not only looking at the potential of qualifying, but also a chance at winning the group.
Young Boys (7 pts) v Porto (4 pts)
Feyenoord (4 pts) v Rangers (7 pts)
In wild and crazy Group G, we could enter Matchday 6 with all four clubs tied with seven points. That said, with Rangers currently favored over Feyenoord – the Scots win in 49% of FiveThirtyEight simulations – it seems unlikely at the outset. Still, the Dutch club has a 7% chance of advancing, and a win at home against Rangers would be the first step in making that advancement a reality.
Porto is also favored as a road club, and they defeated Young Boys 2-1 when they met back in Porto on Matchday 1. That head-to-head advantage, at least for the moment, is what helps to give them a 48% chance of advancing to the Round of 32 in spite of currently residing in 4th place in the group. A win and they would leapfrog the Swiss club to a qualification position, controlling their fate heading into next month’s Matchday 6 match against Feyenoord.
Braga (10 pts) v Wolverhampton Wanderers (9 pts)
It’s a battle at the top of the group between the likely qualifiers, though Slovan Bratislava (4 pts) still has an outside chance of making some noise from third place. This match is likely more about seeding than anything, and Braga currently holds a slight advantage in finishing first in the group. Braga handed Wolves their first loss of Europa League at Molineux Stadium on Matchday 1, so Wolves head to Portugal with revenge on their mind.
Wolverhampton Wanderers are favored as the road club in this one, and a win would all but clinch the top spot with only a home match against eliminated Beşiktaş looming on Matchday 6. A win would also force Braga into a likely “must draw or win” match against Slovan Bratislava in Slovenia, an uncomfortable proposition.
AZ Alkmaar (8 pts) v Partizan (4 pts)
It’s the likely battle for second in the group behind Manchester United, and AZ can clinch a spot in the next round with a win or a draw. As the hosts, the Dutch club is expected to win 65% of the time in the matchup, though they had to rally against the plucky Serbs during Matchday 1 to force a draw. A loss means that AZ will travel to Old Trafford and need a win on Matchday 6 to avoid elimination despite having what is currently the highest goal differential in Europa League.
Partizan is likely kicking themselves over that match, as the three points would have placed them in the favored position to advance instead. As such, they could find themselves as a third place club with seven or eight points at the end of all this, and that would be very disappointing. An upset win at Cars Jean Stadion, however, would position them to come from behind and claim the second spot in the group behind the Red Devils, assuming they handle eliminated Astana on Matchday 6.