The Europa League begins its abbreviated Round of 16 today, with the second leg coming next week. These matches are feeling the effects of COVID-19 as it rages across Europe, with multiple matches played behind closed doors without fans in the stand, and two matches – Sevilla versus Roma and Inter Milan v Getafe – currently suspended this week amid local health concerns.
We’re not going to preview the remaining six matches this week, but we will highlight a few of the matches expected to go on Thursday night. We hope that things return to normal sooner rather than later, but also applaud the local officials in trying to prevent the further spread of the disease. The mood is slightly dampened, but the action must go on, especially with such a prompt turnaround needed before next week’s second leg.
Our next matchup will feature a surprise competitor in this round – Greek club Olympiacos– as they host English upstart Wolverhampton Wanderers behind closed doors in Greece on Thursday night. The match kicks off from an empty Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus at 9pm CET (4pm EDT).
How They Got Here
Olympiacos finished second in last season’s Superleague Greece, which earned them a trip to the second qualifying round of Champions League. They were undefeated through the qualifying rounds, compiling a 5-1-0 record by a combined score of 13-1 over Viktoria Plzeň, İstanbul Başakşehir, and Krasnodar. They did not have as much success in the group stage, finishing a distant third in Group B behind Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur. In the Round of 32, they managed to knock off Arsenal, last season’s Europa League finalist. After losing in leg one 1-0 at home, they managed notch the the 2-1 win in the 120th minute at Emirates Stadium in leg two to win on away goals after drawing 2-2 on aggregate.
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, by a combined score of 19-4. They then finished second in Group K behind Braga, unbeaten in their final five group stage matches. In the Round of 32, they were drawn against Espanyol, and easily won leg one 4-0 behind a hat trick from Diogo Jota. They held on in leg two to advance 6-3 on aggregate.
Olympiacos completed the first part of the Superleague Greece season undefeated (20-6-0) and enters the “championship round” as the top club. With ten matches remaining, they are likely on their way to a return trip to Europe next season, though it remains to be seen if the season will actually conclude as scheduled due to the current COVID-19 issues.
Wolves are currently tied for sixth place with Sheffield United in the Premier League and slightly ahead on goal differential (+7 to +5) against the Blades. If the season were to end today, they would be back in the Europa League group stage next season, but they are only two points behind fifth place Manchester United for the final Champions League 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.
Never Tell Me the Odds
According to our friends at FiveThirtyEight, Wolves have the third-best chance of winning the tournament, doing so in 10% of simulations. They are also favored in this matchup, winning 63% of the time. However, this leg one match is pretty much a toss-up, with Olympiacos winning 36% of the time, Wolves winning 35%, and a draw resulting the remaining 29%.
You have to wonder how much the empty stadium will impact the home club, or if Wolves will be incentivized to win this one after Olympiacos eliminated their countrymen in the last round. Either way, expect an exciting game from Greece that will hopefully take everyone’s mind off COVID-19 raging across the globe for at least 90 minutes or so.
Until next time…