The Europa League begins the knockout phase today, with the Round of 32 kicking off around Europe this afternoon. We won’t be covering all 16 matches, but we will be highlighting the matchups featuring either clubs with a chance to win it all or matchups that could see either team pull out a victory and move on to the Round of 16.
While Europa League is not packed with the big names of the Champions League, there are still some high quality clubs playing for the title, and with it, an automatic berth in the Group Stage of next season’s Champions League. And with the unseeded clubs playing host in this opening leg, we could have some surprise club that seemingly improve their odds before next week’s concluding leg.
Our next matchup features Spanish club Sevilla traveling to Romania to face off against a surprising CFR Cluj club that has found some success so far in Europe. The match kicks off from Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu in Cluj-Napoca at 6:55pm CET (12:55pm EST).
How They Got Here
Sevilla qualified for the Europa League group stage by finishing sixth in La Liga last season. The most successful club in the competition – five titles, including three in a row from 2014 to 2016 – Sevilla also didn’t struggle in this year’s group stage, winning its first five matches before losing a meaningless Matchday 6 meeting at APOEL. They scored 14 goals in six group stage matches while surrendering only three, for a +11 goal differential that was the best in the round.
CFR Cluj, on the other hand, has been playing in Europe since the first qualifying round of Champions League began back in July. As the Romanian champions, they earned entry at that stage, and were underdogs all along the way, but not before they won three rounds against Astana, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Celtic, before finally succumbing to Slavia Prague in the playoff round. Upon their transfer to the Europa League group stage, they finished second in Group E behind Celtic with a 4-0-2 record, including three wins at home.
Sevilla is currently in 5th place in La Liga, and has never fallen below seventh in the very top heavy Spanish league. They are tied in points (but trail in goal differential) with fourth place Atlético Madrid for the final free spot to Champions League next season, and should remain competitive for another spot in Europe next season. If they fail to win this tournament, or qualify via their league position, however, they could be spending season outside of UEFA, as they have already been eliminated from the Copa del Rey and its berth into Europa League.
CFR Cluj, in contrast, has qualified for the Championship round in Romania, which qualifies the clubs there for European competition. With one match remaining in the “regular” season, Cluj is leading Universitatea Craiova by three points (and 18 goals in differential). There is still some work to do before a return ticket to Europe is punched, but I like their chances of returning next season.
Never Tell Me the Odds
According to our friends at FiveThirtyEight, this is the most lopsided matchup of the Round of 32. Sevilla advances to the Round of 16 in 92% of simulations, and is victorious in 66% of leg one simulations. They are also right behind Manchester United as favorites to win the entire thing, doing so 9% of the time. But I want to see at least this home match from CFR Cluj before I pronounce them completely dead. They’ve been underdogs the entire European season, and have somehow prevailed against clubs that are much higher on the pecking order. If they can somehow manage to keep it close, even for a half, maybe they can continue to surprise us.
One of the things that makes Europa League so intriguing to follow is the nearly randomness of some results along the way. It will likely be different for CFR Cluj this time around, and they have massive odds stacked against them. But the Romanian champions have proven time and again during UEFA competition this season that they can and will compete against all comers, and I don’t expect this matchup against Sevilla to be as easy for the Spaniards as most seem to think. I hope I’m not jinxing the little Romanian club that could.
Until next time…