Forty-eight teams from twenty-nine European associations will take part in this season’s UEFA Europa League group stage with a few eye-catching giants taking part as well as a few minnows competing in European competition for the very first time.
Over the next two days, we will preview each group and weigh up every team’s expectations.
Group A (Astana, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Slavia Prague, Villarreal)
On paper, this looks like a brilliant draw for Villarreal, but their draw last year seemed the same as they were drawn alongside Steaua Bucharest, debutants Osmanlispor from Turkey and second division Swiss side Zurich.
Despite this, they struggled so they won’t be taking any prisoners this time around. They kept no clean sheets in last years group stage and won no games away from home as they scraped through in second place with nine points.
Maccabi, managed by Johan Cruyff’s son Jordi, came through four qualifying rounds without much fuss to get to this stage but suffered a very shaky start in the league losing 3-0 at home to Beitar Jerusalem.
Slavia are on the way back up again after a few years in the abyss winning their first title since 2009 last season.
They lost a few key players from that title winning team (Jiri Pavlenka to Werder Bremen, Antonin Barak to Udinese and Michael Luftner to Copenhagen) and replaced them with many over 30s (Halil Altintop, Ruslan Rotan, Danny, and Jan Lastuvka) who all have European experience, but are arguable way past their best.
A 2-0 playoff defeat to APOEL prevented them a place in the Champions League group stage.
Astana too lost a Champions League playoff, in their case to Celtic, going out 8-4 on aggregate.
A long, long trip to Kazakhstan may prove to be a headache for other sides in the group, so home performances will be vital for Astana.
Villarreal look certainties to progress and I believe the other three sides have an equal chance of qualifying alongside them, but whoever does will struggle to advance further than the Round of 32.
Group B (Dynamo Kiev, Partizan, Skenderbeu, Young Boys)
Four teams with little pedigree in Europe will battle out in Group B.
Dynamo reached the semis in 2009 but have not had anywhere near the success they had in the 70s and 80s when they won two Cup Winners’ Cups and a UEFA Super Cup.
The Ukrainian side will be hoping for revenge over Young Boys who knocked them out of the Champions League in the Third Qualifying Round this season.
The Swiss side eventually succumb to CSKA Moscow in the playoffs, losing the home leg 1-0 after a comical late own goal by Kasim Nuhu.
Partizan have never made it past the group stage in the Europa League’s current format but did do the Serbian League and Cup double last year edging out Belgrade rivals Red Star in both competitions.
Skenderbeu were the dominant side in Albania until last year as they failed to win the league for the first time since 2010 but still remain the nation’s only ever representative now competing for a second time in the group stage.
They may well have qualified last season too but were banned for match-fixing allegations before their tie with Ferencvaros.
Dynamo and Young Boys look to be the favourites to progress, Partizan may cause some problems especially after adding Zoran Tosic in the summer from CSKA Moscow whereas Skenderbeu have not got much chance of advancing and will just be happy to have gotten so far especially after losing the league’s top scorer Hamdi Salihi to Wiener Neustadt.
Group C: (Braga, Hoffenheim, Istanbul Basaksehir, Ludogorets)
Another group with very little experience in Europe awaits in Group C but these four sides may offer more of a challenge to some of the favourites in the later rounds.
Braga reached the final of this competition back in 2011 before losing to fellow Portuguese side Porto but apart from that, the rest of the group are relatively new to the European scene.
Ludogorets fairytale first season in Europe in 2013-14 saw them win away at PSV and Lazio before going out to Valencia in the Round of 16.
The following season they entered the Champions League for the first time and momentarily lead Real Madrid 1-0 before losing 2-1.
They also held Liverpool at home 2-2 and only lost to a stoppage time penalty at Anfield so they are certainly capable of being a nuisance.
Hoffenheim had differing fortunes when they went to Anfield in August, losing 4-2 as they went out 6-3 in their Champions League playoff but after finishing fourth in the Bundesliga last season, they were a team many would have wanted to avoid.
Losing Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Sule will hardly help their cause but keeping Andrej Kramaric was critical and they have also loaned Serge Gnabry from Bayern.
Istanbul Basaksehir will certainly be a side to look out for. Just three years since they were promoted back to the Turkish top flight, they were the width of the goal post away from qualifying for the Champions League group stage via away goals as Emre Belozoglu’s 90th minute free kick rebounded off the post with the tie 4-3 in Sevilla’s favour.
Emre is one of a couple Premier League old boys too as Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gokhan Inler and Eljero Elia all apply their trade at the club. Edin Visca may also be another to look out for.
Group C looks wide open as all four sides will believe they have a chance of making it through. Braga and Hoffenheim may come from top leagues in Europe but Ludogorets have proved in the past that they are up for the big occasions and Basaksehir will have left the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan brimming with confidence despite being knocked out by Sevilla.
Group D (AC Milan, AEK Athens, Austria Vienna, Rijeka)
If you thought Milan were quite lucky with their qualifying draws then their rewards for breezing past Universitatea Craiova and Shkendija was just as fortunate, avoiding all the biggest teams in the lower pots.
No disrespect to the other sides drawn in Group D, but Milan, if they really wanted to, will have no difficulty in winning six games from six in the group.
Milan have the firepower to go very far in the competition. The big profile signing of Leonardo Bonucci, the strengthening of the defence with Andrea Conti, Mateo Musacchio and Ricardo Rodriguez, and the wonderkids of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Manuel Locatelli and Patrick Cutrone make the Rossoneri a force to be reckoned with.
Rijeka ended Dinamo Zagreb’s domination in Croatia last season by winning the league title but just simply do not have the squad or quality to go very far.
Austria Vienna have reached the group stage on three occasions and have never progressed further, and AEK were playing in the amateur leagues as recently as 2014 after financial difficulties saw them demoted.
The Greek side were usually regulars in Europe but it is still not clear whether they are fully back on their feet just yet.
Expect Milan to cruise through as group winners and then which ever side focuses solely on Europe to take second.
Rijeka will stand nearly no chance of retaining the Croatian title if they spend too much time focusing on the Europa League, whereas the other two sides in the group finished quite a way off the league leaders in their respective leagues.
Group E (Apollon Limassol, Atalanta, Everton, Lyon)
In this season’s group of death, it is safe to say the three top sides would have wanted to avoid each other and for poor Apollon they look down and out before a ball has been kicked.
This is the only group where three teams come from the top five leagues.
All sides lost key players in the summer, with Romelu Lukaku leaving Everton for Manchester United, Alexandre Lacazette, Maxime Gonalons and Corentin Tolisso left Lyon for Arsenal, Roma and Bayern Munich respectively, and Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti both left Atalanta to join AC Milan.
Everton have recruited well in the goalkeeping, defending and midfield areas but failed to find an adequate replacement for Lukaku.
Lyon have added Bertrand Traore and Mariano from Chelsea and Real Madrid over the summer, while Atalanta will be delighted to have kept hold of captain Papu Gomez as well as signing the experienced Josip Ilicic from Fiorentina.
Atalanta are competing in Europe for the first time in 26 years after Gian Pietro Gasperini guided them to a fourth place finish in Serie A while Everton are back after two years away, finishing seventh in Ronald Koeman’s first season which meant they had to see off Ruzomberok and Hajduk Split just to reach the group stage.
Lyon flattered to deceive in their domestic league last season but did reach the semi-finals in the Europa League, scoring 23 goals in four rounds after dropping down from the Champions League post Christmas.
Apollon will be taking inspiration from fellow Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia who reached the Champions League quarter finals, beating Lyon on the way, before going out to Real Madrid.
No team from Cyprus has ever even gotten close to replicating APOEL’s achievements since.
Everton are associated with not showing up for the big occasions in recent times but handled their group last time round which also looked difficult as they were drawn with Wolfsburg and Lille and easily won the group.
Lyon were excellent in Europe last season and will fancy themselves to advance but have lost major players in the spine of the team and Atalanta have no recent experience but will definitely cause problems.
Apollon on the other hand, will be hoping for miracles.
Group F (FC Copenhagen, Fastav Zlin, Lokomotiv Moscow, Sheriff Tiraspol)
Another group which seems to have teams that will cause no major threat in the later rounds is Group F.
Two names will stand out to your every day football fan and two not so much.
Copenhagen and Lokomotiv are regulars in this competition but Zlin and Sheriff are two not so familiar names.
Zlin are yet to play a single European game as they qualified directly for the group stage after winning the Czech Cup and Sheriff, who dominate the Moldovan top flight most seasons, have never progressed further than the group stage.
Qarabag knocked out both Sheriff and Copenhagen from the Champions League this season while Lokomotiv entered automatically.
The Russian side have made a few shrewd acquisitions bringing in Maciej Rybus from Lyon, Ari from Krasnodar, Igor Denisov from city rivals Dinamo, and Portugal’s Euro 2016 hero Eder from Lille.
Copenhagen, however, have lost influential players such as Ludwig Augustinsson and Andreas Cornelius.
Most will expect Copenhagen and Lokomotiv to progress but whatever Zlin have to offer is still unknown so nothing should be assumed to soon.