The Europa League round of 32 draw remains a peculiar event in European football; whilst three quarters of the draw celebrate qualification for the knock-out stages, eight Champions League drop-outs join the tournament with glum reluctance. But whilst the scoffs and moans of Manchester United, Valencia, and Porto fans could derail their European campaigns, there are plenty of talented sides in this tournament undeterred by attempts from the elite to undermine its prestige. England’s contingent are typically the worst offenders on this front, but fear for coefficient points should inspire greater respect for the tournament’s integrity this time around.
The Europa League is deeply respected in mainland Europe for showcasing the continent’s finest up-and-coming outfits and, of course, for providing the winner with a place in next season’s Champions League. Having spent the majority of their careers abroad, Louis van Gaal, Jurgen Klopp, and Mauricio Pochettino will fight tooth and nail to win this competition, regardless of the impact Thursday night outings may have on their domestic campaigns.
Premier League Clubs:
Manchester United travel to Denmark to face the champions FC Midtjylland, who squeezed through the group stages after collecting just seven points; it is, on paper, the easiest draw Van Gaal could have hoped for.
However, Midtjylland are no ordinary club. Last season’s unprecedented title success was the result of owner Rasmus Ankersen’s “Moneyball” approach, utilising complex algorithms and statistical data to determine tactics and recruitment. The extraordinary success of this approach (currently being repeated by Ankersen at Brentford) is largely centred on set-pieces – which accounted for nearly half of their goals last season and four of their six in the Europa league this campaign.
Manchester United have shown vulnerability to set-pieces in recent weeks (three conceded in their last two games) but this is largely the result of their injury crisis; when senior players return, Van Gaal’s excellent defensive record is likely to resurface. Back United to win the first leg at 4/5 with bet365.
Domestically, Midtjylland play high tempo one touch football in a 4-1-4-1 system, but they average just 44% possession in Europe; United should dominate the ball comfortably, and assuming that some of their attacking verve has returned by February, they should advance to the next round.
Liverpool will be in full swing by February, swarming the pitch in gengenpressing frenzy as Jurgen Klopp’s tactical philosophy takes hold at Anfield. Or at least they should be. Either way, Klopp will be quietly confident that his side can overcome German outfit FC Augsburg. Klopp’s obsessive analysis and surveillance of opposition teams is widely renowned, and thus being matched with one of his former foes suits the manager greatly. At Dortmund, he won five and drew three of his eight matches against Augsburg.
Augsburg have amassed just 16 points from 16 games this campaign after a surprise 5th place finish in the 2014/15 season, but they have a strong recent history of winning as underdogs. Not only have they defeated Bayern twice in 2015, but they also enjoyed a 1-0 win over Klopp’s Dortmund in February. Back Liverpool to win the first leg at 6/5 with bet365.
Augsburg have conceded more shots than any other team in the Bundesliga this season. pic.twitter.com/RTv7Pb3tch
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) December 14, 2015
Tottenham’s match-up with Fiorentina is one of the most glamorous and intriguing matches of the draw. Paulo Sousa has quickly implemented a high pressing, possession-dominant philosophy in Florence; his side average a staggering 60% possession in Serie A (only Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and PSG boast more in Europe) and lead the charts for goals scored (31).
Sousa’s 3-5-2 formation relies upon centre-backs stepping out to build attacks high up the pitch, creating a narrow throng of players (six or seven) for short, quick tempo passing interchanges. Width is provided only by the wing-backs, and the primary method of defending is to aggressively press the ball high up the pitch when possession is lost (not unlike the Pep Guardiola model).
Spurs, who use a similar system but with greater versatility in their approach, will most likely benefit from facing a team in this mould. This will be a congested and somewhat claustrophobic match between teams with high defensive lines and constant pressing, but Tottenham’s counter-attacking ability could exploit the gaps in behind Fiorentina’s wing-backs.
Harry Kane is excellent at drifting into the left channel, and Toby Alderweireld (6.2 accurate long balls per match) will look to launch the ball towards the England striker at every opportunity. A match between two similar teams both chasing the league title is difficult to predict, but Spurs’ greater counter-attacking threat may prove decisive – and provide them with a crucial away goal in the first leg. Back double chance Tottenham/draw at 4/6 with bet365.
Tie of the Round
The highest profile fixture is surely Dortmund versus Porto, a battle between two attack-minded teams that expect to reach the latter stages of the tournament. Dortmund’s new coach Thomas Tuchel has made a superb start to the season after implementing a tiki-taka style of play; a great admirer of Guardiola, it is unsurprising that Tuchel’s side average 65.6% possession in this year’s Europa League. Porto are excellent on the counter, and thus we can expect an exciting end-to-end game. Back both teams to score in the first leg at 4/5 with bet365.
Dortmund are favourites to win the tournament at 7/1 with bet365, and it is easy to see why. Their Bundesliga form is outstanding, and a swirling tiki-taka strategy is perfect for controlling two legged ties in Europe. What’s more, by Spring the league title is likely to be all but guaranteed to stay in Munich, allowing Tuchel to focus on a tournament that famously tires those chasing honours domestically.
Man Utd are second favourites at 9/1 with Sky Bet, but these odds are difficult to justify given their alarming goalscoring record in the Premier League. Results must improve fast if Van Gaal is to remain in the post, although if he does then European success is certainly possible; his low tempo, defensively astute tactical model could be well suited to knock-out tournaments.
The remaining outsiders are Napoli at 12/1 with PaddyPower and Liverpool at 12/1 with bet365, with the bookies reluctant to back Sevilla (29/2 with BetBright) to claim a third successive crown. Napoli are playing superbly in Serie A and are many people’s favourites to win the Scudetto, but face a daunting task against Villarreal in the round of 32. Liverpool, meanwhile, are in possession of a manager who reached the Champions League final in 2013.
But the Europa League is a long and exhausting competition, famous for its fairy-tale stories – from Dnipro, to Braga, to Fulham – and as ever, any one of these 32 teams could lift the trophy in May.