Europa League 2017/18 – group-by-group preview (G to L)

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.

Our preview of the group stage continues today with the focus on the teams in G to L.

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Group G (Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Lugano, Steaua Bucharest, Viktoria Plzen)

Possibly the weakest of the 12 groups, it is hard enough justifying how one of these teams was classed in Pot 1, never mind trying to predict who will qualify.

Plzen were the top seeded side because of their regular involvement in European competition despite never really doing anything notable.

Steaua do have a European Cup to their name but have been poor in continental football since the 1990s.

Hapoel seem to be the new force in Israel but are still unable to reach the Champions League proper. They did enjoy an incredible win at San Siro last season however against Inter in this competition.

Lugano are also newcomers and the third best team in Switzerland last season are making their first appearance this season.

Steaua knocked Plzen out in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League this season but both have now dropped down and will face off yet again but I believe one will drop out of this competition too before Christmas as Hapoel look like the strongest team in the group.

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Group H (Arsenal, BATE Borisov, Cologne, Red Star Belgrade)

For the first time in Arsene Wenger’s reign, Arsenal failed to finish in the top four and consequently have to settle for Europa League football this season.

A trip to Belarus does not look enviable but they will be happy with the draw especially comparing it to the group fellow English side Everton were given.

They already seem like they are in crisis after three league games and it is unlikely that this competition will be prioritised at the early stages though.

A stark contrast to how Cologne will be feeling as their fans invaded the pitch on the final day last season after securing a Europa League spot.

The downside for them is that they lost player of the year Anthony Modeste who moved to China and they have also made a poor start to the season.

With the two big guns in the group out of form, BATE and Red Star will be hoping they can take advantage and achieve a surprising top two finish.

BATE have been in and out of the Champions League group stages for the last seven years but failed to make it for a second year running.

They have had some real highs (3-1 win vs Bayern in 2012 and a 3-2 win vs Roma in 2015) and some real, real lows (7-0 home defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk and a 6-0 loss to Porto both in 2014); this time they will certainly be hoping for the former.

Red Star are another surprise Eastern European side with a European Cup in their trophy room, but not much is expected as this is their first group stage appearance since 2007.

Should Arsenal and Cologne play to their greatest ability, there is no doubt they will progress but this competition is notorious for throwing up shocks and neither will wanting be humiliated so early in the tournament.

BATE are capable, but not convincing.

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Group I (Konyaspor, Marseille, Salzburg, Vitoria Guimaraes)

After a season where many fans thought Marseille would astonishingly end up getting relegated to Ligue 2, they responded by surviving that mini scare, regrouping, investing money in better players, and now find themselves back in Europe after a brief absence. They have been drawn in a winnable, but slightly tricky group.

Salzburg have impressed in this competition recently like in 2013 when they were the only side to win every group game but the stars which made up that team such as Sadio Mane, Jonathan Soriano and Kevin Kampl are all long gone.

They removed the Red Bull sponsorship from their name to dodge a UEFA ruling on company-owned teams as RB Leipzig would also be in the competition, but they fell at the first hurdle anyway, getting knocked out by Rijeka on away goals.

Konyaspor were woeful last season in their debut appearance in Europe, gaining just one point meaning surely the only way is up for them and Vitoria are making just their third appearance, hoping to finally make it past the group stage.

Despite losing 6-1 to Monaco, Marseille will still believe they can go far this season in Europe with Florian Thauvin, Dimitri Payet, Remy Cabella and Steve Mandanda all back from very differing Premier League experiences.

Maxime Lopes is one to look out for as are new signings Luiz Gustavo and Valere Germain, who won the title with Monaco last season.

Based purely on recent experience, Salzburg are slight favourites to nick second spot in the group.

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Group J (Athletic Bilbao, Hertha Berlin, Ostersunds, Zorya Luhansk)

For the sixth time in eight years, Bilbao have made it to the group stage of the Europa League and will hoping for similar success to that of 2011/12 when they reached the final and with the evergreen Aritz Aduriz still scoring 20+ goals a season, they have a pretty good chance.

No side in Europe could say they have a better youth system than Bilbao, as every player who plays in their first team, strictly must be from the Basque region.

Inaki Williams and Kepa Arrizabalaga are the next two hot prospects who have broken into the first team.

Hertha at long last have given the capital club’s fans something to shout about, reaching the group stage for the first time since 2009.

Two impressive seasons in Germany may now see them settled as one of the top six sides in the country with a resurgent Salomon Kalou helping them along the way.

Ostersunds are another debutant in this years group stage and are also one of the youngest as they were only formed in 1996. They were impressive in qualification seeing off Galatasaray and PAOK but have been given a difficult group.

Zorya who are initially from Luhansk, have not been able to play at home for a few years because of the ongoing issues with Russia as it is a serious no go zone at the moment. For the time being they must play in Zaporizhia, 265 miles away.

Bilbao and Hertha are very likely to make up the top two as Zorya struggled last season in the group stage playing so far away from home and Ostersunds may not have the firepower to go much further.

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Group K (Lazio, Nice, Vitesse, Zulte-Waregem)

Nice were massively disappointing in Europe last season and will be hoping for a drastic improvement in an arguably tougher group, especially after narrowly missing out on the Champions League in the playoffs.

They will be delighted with how the transfer window panned out as they kept hold of star men Jean Seri, Alassane Plea, Wylan Cyprien and Vincent Koziello as well as signing Wesley Sneijder on a free.

Hatem Ben Arfa and Mario Balotelli excelled at Nice when their careers were fading and both Nice and Sneijder will be hoping for the same.

Lazio will be less pleased as they lost Wesley Hoedt, Lucas Biglia and Balde Keita for big money but made no real marquee signings except for Nani on loan.

Keeping Ciro Immobile and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was critical, but they look weaker to what they did last season when they finished fifth in Serie A.

It was a historic season for Chelsea’s feeder club Vitesse as they won a trophy for the first time in their 125 year history, but with a constantly changing squad, Vitesse will struggle to compete in Europe.

There is just the five loanees from Chelsea this season at the club.

Zulte, across the border in Belgium, will be hoping for more success than they had in 2013 when they were knocked out in the group stage alongside then-Championship side Wigan in Group D.

Nice and Lazio should certainly have enough quality to make it through and their meetings in matchday 3 and 4 may well shape the group. Beating Vitesse and Zulte will be no walk in the park however.

A dream draw for the supporters, all four sides are practically next door to each other which could lead to very atmospheric games for sure.

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Group L (Real Sociedad, Rosenborg, Vardar, Zenit St. Petersburg)

You have got to feel for Macedonian minnows Vardar, their miraculous win in the playoffs against Fenerbahce meant they were the lowest ranked side in the entire draw and the first side from the Former Yugoslav Republic to get this far, and with that, they have got one of the toughest draws they could have got.

Drawing three sides who all have a lot of European experience, and in Zenit and Rosenborg’s case, many league titles too.

Real Sociedad have not been quite the same since Antoine Griezmann and Asier Illarramendi were poached by the two Madrid sides and since David Moyes had a brief spell in charge, Carlos Vela has also departed to play in the US.

However, Illarramendi has since returned and so have Sociedad to European competition as this is their first ever group stage appearance in this competition after two season in the Champions league in 2003/04 and 2013/14.

Zenit were a major let down in the league last season by finishing only third and crashing out of Europe earlier than anticipated.

An overhaul followed this summer as many were allowed to leave and many more were brought in.

A mini raid on Rostov saw them bring in Dmitriy Poloz, Christian Noboa and Miha Mevlja as well as bringing in five Argentines, most notably, Leandro Paredes from Roma.

They have started the season very well earning 20 points from a possible 24 so the 2008 UEFA Cup winners may have an outside chance at going very far again.

Rosenborg notably knocked out Ajax to get this far, ending the Dutch side’s incredible run of consecutive European qualifications which spanned over half a century.

A side that was a usual fixture in the Champions League have faltered recently and may struggle to get out the group this time round.

Zenit and Real Sociedad are the stand out sides in the group and are expected to advance but Rosenborg can be tricky as Ajax found out.

Vardar, unfortunately, stand an almost non-existent chance of progressing.

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Andrew Delaney

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