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UEFA Europa League: A somewhat scientific look at the group stage

Predicting the knockout round isn’t exactly easy.

UEFA Europa League 2020/21 Group Stage Draw Photo by Harold Cunningham - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Hello Europa, my old friend.

It’s been a few years since Tottenham Hotspur have found themselves in the second-tier European competition. After four straight years of Champions League qualification, including being runners-up two seasons ago in Madrid, Spurs will be considered one of the favorites to raise the silverware at the end. It took three rounds of qualification, but we’ve reached the group stage. While breaking down Champions League is much easier, there’s a certain charm to looking up small clubs from leagues I didn’t know existed.

But, here we are, and I’m the guy who does the European breakdown so let’s do this.

Group A

Clubs: AS Roma (ITA), BSC Young Boys (SWI), CFR Cluj (ROM), CSKA Sofia (BUL)

Roma will be heavily favored to come out of this group. While being in a perpetual state of spinning their wheels in Italy, they still find their way into European competition. Forever-linked-to-Tottenham Nicolo Zaniolo is one to watch for, as is defensive midfielder Amadou Diawara. Young Boys have been a staple of Europa League for the last several seasons but have a hard time getting out of their groups, failing to make the knockout round the last five seasons. The Swiss side will lean on players such as Jean-Pierre Nsame and Nicolas Ngamaleu to try and get over the hump.

Cluj and Sofia are the underdogs, without a doubt, but with Young Boys forgetting how to play football when it matters either side could jump in and steal the second spot. Cluj’s center forward, Billel Omrani, is being expected to shoulder the load though he hasn’t had a great run the last two seasons. Ali Sowe carried Sofia through all four rounds of qualification with three goals and good pressin overall. The task isn’t impossible, and I won’t be surprised if Young Boys mess up again.

Prediction: AS Roma, CFR Cluj

Group B

Clubs: Arsenal (ENG), SK Rapid Wien (AUS), Molde FK (NOR), Dundalk (IRE)

Arsenal could probably sleepwalk through this group, so let’s not focus on them. The battle for the second spot is almost certainly between Rapid Wien and Molde. Dundalk are going to fight like hell, but they don’t have the depth to deal with their domestic league and Europa. The Austrian side have some talent in their attacking band, including a kid by the name of Yusuf Demir. He’s just 17 years old but showing he has plenty of promise. Molde FK are the side you know little about and can still bite you in the back side. The safe money here is to go with Arsenal and Rapid Wien, trusting in the pot one and two sides, but Molde aren’t bad by any stretch and Dundalk will almost certainly pull points from someone they shouldn’t.

Prediction: Arsenal, Molde FK

Group C

Clubs: Bayer Leverkusen (GER), Slavia Praha (CZE), Hapoel Be’er-Sheva (ISR), OGC Nice (FRA)

This should be a fun group. Leverkusen are loaded with talent that includes Moussa Diaby, Leon Bailey, Jonathan Tah and Exequiel Palacios. Like Arsenal, they will probably cruise through to the knockout rounds but they didn’t get nearly as favorable of a draw. Slavia Praha have a solid goalkeeper in Ondrej Kolar and a well-balanced midfield including 24 year old Peter Olayinka. They’ve scored 19 goals in six matches in the Fortuna Liga while giving up just two, so they’re not to be taken lightly. Be-er-Sheva is another wild card side that have enjoyed good results. They beat a tough Viktoria Plzen side as well as Motherwell in the qualification rounds so expect some fight from them. OGC Nice as the fourth team in this group makes it truly fun. Patrick Vieira’s side has some familiar names such as former Ajax striker Kasper Dolberg and pacey right back Youcef Atal. Jeff Reine-Adelaide, who joined on a loan from Lyon, is an exciting midfielder that is going to cause problems.

This group might be the Group of Death this season and I have no idea who to pick for that second slot. Leverkusen will get to the knockout stages unless something crazy happens, and I really like this Nice side. If they prioritize Europa, I think they get in from the fourth pot.

Predictions: Bayer Leverkusen, OGC Nice

Group D

Clubs: SL Benfica (POR), Standard Liege (BEL), Rangers (SCO), Lech Poznan (POL)

Benfica are the class of this group by quite a wide margin. Given that Spurs have received some help from the Portuguese club in the form of Gedson Fernandes and Carlos Vinicius on loan, it’s safe to say they aren’t concerned about depth. Expect them to walk the group.

After Benfica, Standard Liege have a solid, if not unremarkable squad that can cause problems. Young center back Zinho Vanheusden is going to get some looks from larger clubs as early as next summer. Listed at 6’2”, the Inter Milan Academy product has turned heads for the Belgian side. He has good mobility, is strong in the air, and looks to be a natural leader.

Steven Gerrard’s Rangers side is weird, even by Scottish Premier League standards. 24-year-old Alfredo Morelos helps lead the attack along with Ryan Kent and Scott Arfield, and while those three have 13 goals in the same number of matches, the leading scorer is right back James Tavernier, who has eight goals in all competitions. While former Spurs striker Jermain Defoe is available, I wouldn’t expect to see him much. He only has 53 minutes of action.

Lech Poznan will roll out a squad that is a mixture of veterans and promising youth players. 21-year-old midfielder Jakub Moder is on loan for the season from Brighton and Hove Albion and is making a solid impact with ten appearances already this season. We might see a bit of Filip Marchwinski and Jakub Kaminski, two teenagers who are already making great strides for the Polish side. While Poznan probably doesn’t get out of this group, they’re far from a bad side.

Predictions: SL Benfica, Rangers

Group E

Clubs: PSV Eindhoven (NED), PAOK (GRE), Granada (ESP), Omonoia (CYP)

PSV have some solid talent in their squad, including new arrivals Mario Gotze and Philipp Max. The youngster to watch for the Dutch side is Ibrahim Sangare, who Spurs were tracking during the summer window but never made an official bid. PAOK and Granada will almost certainly be fighting for the second spot while Omonoia will look to steal points if they can. While the talent between these three clubs aren’t exactly mind-blowing, Barceloan loanee Moussa Wague might turn a few heads at right back for PAOK. Granada won’t be pushovers and have a couple of loanees from EPL sides including Yangel Herrera from Manchester City. This group is top-heavy, but that battle for the second spot should be fun.

Predictions: PSV Eindhoven, PAOK

Group F

Clubs: Napoli (ITA), Real Sociedad (ESP), AZ Alkmaar (NED), Rijeka (CRO)

Napoli find themselves out of the Champions League for the first time in five seasons after finishing seventh in Serie A. The Italian side will be one of the favorites to win the competition given their strong squad. Their new striker, Victor Osimhen, should see plenty of action after his move from LOSC Lille. It won’t be a flat out cake walk, however, as Real Sociedad have some quality talent to unleash as well. Mikel Oyarzabal and Alexander Isak are just two names to watch for a rather exciting side from La Liga. For AZ and Rijeka, they will try to hold their own but are almost certainly outclassed. Do pay attention to Calvin Stengs and Myron Boadu for AZ, however, as they are names we’ll hear in coming transfer windows. Doing well on the European stage only means bigger moves down the road.

Predictions: Napoli, Real Sociedad

Group G

Clubs: Braga (POR), Leicester City (ENG), AEK Athens (GRE), Zorya Luhansk (UKR)

I think this group is far more open than people will think. Leicester City may be a quality side, but they are currently a bit on the banged up side. Wilfred Ndidi, Caglar Soyuncu and Ricardo Pereira are all out for the foreseeable future but the Foxes should have enough to get to the knockout rounds. Braga are off to an unremarkable start in the Portuguese Primerira Liga, sitting in sixth with only five goals scored. While AEK and Zorya aren’t going to have any names you’ll recognize, this is the type of group where one of those clubs could catch the others by surprise. This group is tough to pick, and I’m not overly impressed with what I’ve seen from Braga. I’m giving the nod to Leicester and AEK.

Predictions: Leicester City, AEK Athens

Group H

Clubs: Celtic (SCO), Sparta Praha (CZE), AC Milan (ITA), LOSC Lille (Ligue 1)

This is a group that is certain to have some fireworks from top to bottom. Celtic’s Odsonne Edouard leads the attack for the Scottish powerhouse. He’ll almost certainly have some offers from bigger clubs this summer. Sparta Praha also have a talented attacked in 18-year-old Adam Hlozek, who is off to a scintillating start with four goals and five assist in six appearances. AC Milan almost found themselves out of European competition completely in the playoff round, needing a 120’ penalty against Rio Ave to go to PKs, ultimately winning 9-8. Gianluigi Donnarumma is in the final year of his contract and will spark a bidding war for the young keeper’s services in the summer. LOSC Lille, even with the loss of Osimhen this summer, still have plenty of talent. Jonathan Ikone, Jonathan David and Boubakary Soumare are just three high quality players the French side will deploy. Zeki Celik was linked to Spurs before purchasing Matt Doherty. In short, the Pot 4 club is still quite dangerous and this group is easily the toughest to pick.

Predictions: AC Milan, LOSC Lille

Group I

Clubs: Villarreal (ESP), Qarabag (AZE), Maccabi Tel-Aviv (ISR), Sivasspor (TUR)

Villarreal shouldn’t have much of an issue getting to the knockout stages in this group while racking up some major frequent flyer miles. Tottenham’s own Juan Foyth may get ample Europa minutes alongside of Pau Torres. 19-year-old Takefusa Kubo, who is on loan from Real Madrid, is sure to have the eyes of every scout in Europe on him during the Spanish side’s matches.

After Villarreal, this group is a complete crap shoot. Qarabag have enjoyed a solid run in Europe the past six seasons so they’re not to be taken lightly with their experience. Maccabi Tel-Aviv are quite similar with their experience, but both clubs suffer from being unable to make the knockout rounds. Sivasspor have as much of a chance to take that second spot as the other clubs while fielding a veteran lineup. This is a fancy way of me saying I have absolutely no idea who to pick other than Villarreal. I might have better luck just rolling a D20 for each club and picking the highest roll. Wait just a moment...

....Qarabag it is.

Predictions: Villarreal, Qarabag

Group J

Clubs: Tottenham Hotspur (ENG), Ludogorets (BUL), LASK (AUT), Antwerp (BEL)

Spurs should be able to use the group stages to rotate their squad and still get results. Ludogorets are definitely the second best club in this group, but there’s a steep drop from top to second. LASK aren’t off to a great start in their domestic league. While they sit fifth in the table, they’ve scored just five goals in four matches while conceding the same. Royal Antwerp are the minnows here, though we may get to see the younger brother of Romelu Lukaku at left back, Jordan. He’s currently on loan from Lazio though he’s yet to make an appearance for the Belgian side. All in all, I’d go straight chalk in this group. Spurs should roll and Ludogorets are probably better than the others.

Predictions: Tottenham Hotspur, Ludogorets

Group K

Clubs: CSKA Moscow (RUS), Dinamo Zagreb (CZE), Feyenoord (NED), Wolfsberger (AUS)

Keep your eyes locked on 23-year-old Nikola Vlasic for CSKA Moscow. The Croatian International joined Moscow permanently after a modest £15m transfer from Everton. He’s off to a pretty good start, bagging four goals and three assists in nine appearances. He isn’t going to give you the flair of a lot of attacking midfielders, but he has been productive for the Russian club.

Zagreb are going to cause problems for this group with a fairly balanced side. Bruno Petkovic isn’t a name a lot of people will expect, but he’s expected to lead the attack. Currently sitting at the top of the table in Croatia, they want to show they can do more than just win their domestic league.

Feyenoord will have an exciting talent on display in central midfielder Orkun Kokcu. The 19-year-old burst into the senior squad last season and logged over 2,800 minutes while also playing a bit at attacking midfield. Feyenoord have some quality talent, but Kokcu will have the scouts’ attention the most.

Wolfsberger AC, not to be confused with VFL Wolfsburg, are making their second ever appearance in the group stage of Europa. They were handed a miserable draw last season with Roma, Borussia Monchengladbach, and Basaksehir and this season isn’t much better. While they managed to clip two draws against Roma and a win against Monchengladbach, they finished at the bottom and I expect the same here.

Predictions: CSKA Moscow, Dinamo Zagreb

Group L

Clubs: KAA Gent (BEL), Red Star Belgrade (SER), Hoffenheim (GER), Liberec (CZE)

The final group features Belgian side Gent. They’re not the best Pot 1 side by any stretch, but players such as Roman Yaremchuk and Giorgi Chakvetadze will provide enough attacking spark to show they belong. Newly acquired Niklas Dorsch from FC Heidenheim was brought in to stabilize the midfield.

Red Star Belgrade will be the side that suffers the most from lack of fans, arguably their biggest strength when hosting clubs in European competition. They’ll open the competition with a scrappy Hoffenheim club that are looking to challenge for Champions League football in the Bundesliga. Spurs will hope Ryan Sessegnon sees plenty of action on the left flank while 21-year-old Christoph Baumgartner is a rising star that is looking to take the next step in his career.

Slovan Liberec are the odd man out in this group. My knowledge of them, admittedly, is almost non-existent but PSV loanee Michal Sadilek might be a player to watch in central midfield. I don’t expect much out of this side other than getting beat up by the other clubs. Belgrade and Hoffenheim could take Gent by surprise but Belgrade not having their intimidating home pitch advantage is a big hit to their chances.

Predictions: KAA Gent, Hoffenheim

And there you have: Your preview of every group in Europa League. I could take this a step further and look at the clubs I think will fall out of the Champions League but that’s just as big of a crap shoot as it is predicting some of these groups. We’ll leave it here and let the groups play out in both competitions before the knockout round is set in December.