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 match-ups 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.
How They Got Here
Wolves finished seventh in the Premier League last season, their first season in the top English league since 2011-12. Due to Manchester City’s double of the EFL and FA Cup, qualification to Europa League passed to Wolves, who joined this season’s tournament in the second qualifying round. They then easily advanced through three qualifying rounds, winning all six matches against Crusaders, Pyunik, and Torino by a combined score of 19-4. They then finished second in Group K behind Braga, unbeaten in their final five group stage matches.
Espanyol also finished seventh in their domestic league last season, and claimed a spot due in the same second qualifying round because Valencia nabbed both a spot in Champions League and the Copa del Rey. They saw similar success in the qualifying rounds, compiling a 5-1-0 record on an aggregate score of 18-4 against Stjarnan, Luzern, and Zorya Luhansk. They then prevailed in Group H, unbeaten in their first five group matches before losing a meaningless match to last place CSKA Moscow on Matchday 6.
Wolves are currently in eighth place in the Premier League, and thanks to Manchester City’s UEFA ban, could find themselves back in Europa League again next season. They are also only four points behind fifth place Tottenham Hotspur and that lucrative Champions League group stage berth. They have been eliminated from both domestic cups, however, so winning Europa League or moving up the table will be their only opportunity for qualification.
Espanyol, on the other hand, is in pretty dire straits in La Liga. They have been in the relegation zone for all but one week this season, and currently find themselves in last place, though only two points behind the safety of 17th place. Their performance in Europa League has truly given their supporters the only thing to cheer about thus far this season, and the club continues to hope for a turnaround, now under their third manager on the season in Abelardo. If they cannot find their way back in Spain over the next few months, however, they will find themselves back in the Segunda Division for the first time since the 20th century.
Never Tell Me the Odds
According to our friends at FiveThirtyEight, Wolves are among the favorites to win Europa League, doing so in 8% of simulations. That lofty position bears out in their matchup against Espanyol, and they are currently favored to advance 71% of the time through to the Round of 16. As the hosts in leg one, they are overwhelming favorites to win tonight, winning outright 62% of the time.
This match seems fairly lopsided on paper, and appears to be yet another example of Wolves getting a favorable matchup to boost their performance through Europa League. But Espanyol has defied expectations for much of the Europa League season as well, especially considering their performance back in Spain, so the Spanish club will look to get an advantage in this one, perhaps netting an away goal or two to help with the tiebreaker when they play host next week.
Until next time…