The Europa League concludes its brief Round of 32 this week. We won’t be covering all 16 matches, but we will be highlighting a few matchups that are close – at least on paper – and could shuffle up the favorites list heading into 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. While four clubs – including favorite Sevilla – have all but clinched a spot in the next round, as well as Rangers officially punching their ticket yesterday, there will be a fight for most of the remaining 11 spots in the next round.
How They Got Here
Shakhtar Donetsk began its European season this year in Champions League, qualifying directly for the group stage as the champions of the Ukrainian Premier League. They were drawn into Group C, finishing third behind Manchester City and Atalanta, due to a loss to the latter on Matchday 6. They then joined Europa League as an unseeded club for the Round of 32.
Benfica also began in Champions League after winning the Portuguese Primeira Ligue last season, and were drawn into Group G. They too finished third in their group, behind RB Leipzig and Lyon after having a Matchday 6 result go against them as well; they were hoping for a massive loss by Lyon against RB Leipzig, and instead the clubs drew 2-2 after Lyon scored two second half goals.
During leg one, in a match played at Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv, Ukraine (Shakhtar’s home away from home), the clubs waited a bit to start the action, with Shakhtar opening things up in the 56th minute with the first goal. Benfica answered on a penalty 10 minutes later, but Shakhtar managed to net the winner less than five minutes later to walk away with a 2-1 victory. The result wasn’t unexpected, with both clubs entering with an equal chance to prevail, but it was the Ukrainians who emerged with the win and a one goal advantage heading into tonight’s action.
Benfica is again sitting at the top of the Primeira Ligue, one point ahead of Porto with 12 matches remaining. They were unbeaten from September through January, winning 16 matches in a row around all of their European action. February hasn’t been as kind, as they opened the month with two consecutive losses (to Porto and Braga), but they have since returned to their winning ways, defeating Gil Vicente on Monday afternoon.
Shakhtar are also leading their league back in Ukraine, and preparing to take place in the “Championship round” as the first place club. They are undefeated through 19 matches (17-2-0) and have only surrendered nine goals all season. They have also not lost on the road in European competition this season, though that only accounts for three matches (1-2-0).
Never Tell Me the Odds
According to our friends at FiveThirtyEight, Shakhtar Donetsk is slightly favored to advance to the Round of 16, doing so in 55% of simulations. However, as the home club, Benfica is favored in the leg two match, winning 54% of simulations. This makes the matchup a little closer to a coin flip, as Benfica scored one goal last week to enter the leg with an away goal advantage should the aggregate score dictate the need to go to the tiebreaker.
Shakhtar advances as long as they match goals with Benfica, at least beyond the first one. But the Benfica supporters will be out in force, and the distance may make it difficult for even the most diehard Shakhtar supporters to make a showing. Either way, just like our first Europa League match this week, it should be an exciting match between two fairly equal sides. Will Shakhtar be able to overcome and continue to represent Ukraine in Europe in the next round, or will Benfica come out on top and punch their own ticket to the Round of 16, doing what Braga failed to do yesterday?
Guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Until next time…