MANCHESTER UNITED and Wolverhampton Wanderers may be feeling good about their UEFA Europa League hopes this season. The last 16 of the competition includes some big names, such as Inter Milan, Roma and Glasgow Rangers, but the Premier League duo must fancy their chances of going all the way to the Gdansk final.
It looks a weak field, with only four teams from the 16 currently at the top of their domestic league tables. The 16 largely comprises 13 top six sides, a list that includes United and the lowest-placed team at the moment is Eintracht Frankfurt, who sit in 11th position in the German Bundesliga.
How can we determine the relative strength of this season’s Europa? United easily cruised past Bruges, a club that was once a contender in Europe, Wolves crushed Espanyol at Molineux. Of course, the huge Champions League format takes the crème de la crème and leaves the Europa with much less formidable teams. In terms of club size and capability, the last 16 has five that appear in the Deloitte Money League’s top 30, versus seven a year ago.
Furthermore, there are seven teams who have won a European prize, compared to 11 in 2018-19’s 16. Although there are nine representatives from Europe’s top five leagues, 11 nations are represented overall, a reasonably healthy situation.
Arsenal’s exit at the hands of Greece’s Olympiacos was something of a surprise and Celtic probably thought they could comfortably dispose of Denmark’s FC København. It showed that the Europa can be unpredictable, something which is often missing in the Champions League.
Wolves, who face Olympiacos in the round of 16, will do well to take note of how Arsenal allowed the unfancied Greeks to pull off a shock result. Likewise, Manchester United have to treat Austrian Bundesliga leaders LASK of Austria with the utmost respect. Not only is the team from Linz top of the league, but they have a 100% away record and have beaten monied Red Bull Salzburg on their travels.
Although LASK are from Linz, Austria’s third largest city, they play their league games in Pasching. European games are staged at the 21,000-capacity Linzer Stadion. Bundesliga games attract around 5,500 people. The Schawarz-Weißen have lost two league games at home, a stunning 4-0 reversal against Rapid Vienna and a single-goal defeat at the hands of Wolfsberger.
LASK have a strong defence and have conceded just 19 goals in the Bundesliga. They are advocates of an aggressive, high-pressing style. Players to watch include 21 year-old forward Marko Raguž, goalkeeper Alex Schlager, a 24 year-old who has one cap for Austria, and midfielder Reinhold Ranftl. The squad is overwhelmingly Austrian, but also includes a Brazilian, a Ghanaian and an Australian.
LASK aside, two games between Italian and Spanish teams will see two reasonably strong sides eliminated before the quarter-finals. Europa experts Sevilla face Roma and Antonio Conte’s Serie A hopefuls, Inter Milan, will meet surprise team Getafe. There are some interesting ties, regardless of the quality of the remaining clubs.
The question is, how will the Covid-19 virus affect the competition? Northern Italy is something of a no-go area at present and there’s no telling what might happen over the coming weeks. We have not reached peak infection yet, and it only takes one person to fall ill in a heavily populated city to set panic in play and for borders to be closed.
If all goes to schedule, and there’s no guarantee it will, the last eight could look something like this: Bayer Leverkusen, Wolves, Manchester United, Sevilla, FC København, Inter Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk and Eintracht Frankfurt.