Guaranteed to go down to the wire, following an arduous and hard-fought dogfight, the culmination of a seemingly interminable campaign has arrived. No, it’s not the UK general election, but Europe’s biggest* football competition (*disclaimer: when measured by number of games).
A final-round shootout commences on Thursday evening, as the Europa League group stages come to a potentially dramatic climax.
Given the mammoth nature of the competition’s make-up, it can sometimes feel as though any kind of progress or resolution is only an abstract spectre on a distant horizon. However, this week, all will become clear.
Deep breath – APOEL, AZ Alkmaar, Basel, Braga, Celtic, Espanyol, Gent, LASK Linz, Manchester United, Sevilla, Sporting, Wolfsburg and Wolves can all rest easy, as they are already assured of a place in the last 32, alongside the Champions League ‘dropouts’ and eleven others.
Deeper breath – Arsenal, CFR Cluj, Copenhagen, Dynamo Kyiv, Eintracht Frankfurt, Ferencváros, Feyenoord, Getafe, İstanbul Başakşehir, Krasnodar, Lazio, Ludogorets, Malmö, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Porto, Rangers, Roma, Standard Liège and Young Boys are the surviving contenders for those remaining slots in the knockout draw.
With qualification from Groups A, D, I, K and L settled – plus some others looking heavily weighted towards particular clubs’ progress – our focus is inevitably drawn to the numerous multi-club permutations which are a traditional highlight of a group phase’s final matchday.
In fact, so wafer-thin has the difference between clubs in Group G been, they can all still make it through or crash out. Rangers (Eight points), Porto (Seven), Young Boys (also Seven) and Feyenoord (Five) will duke it out for a place in the top two.
The Glasgow giants must pick themselves up off the canvas pretty sharpish, in the wake of their cruel cup final loss to bitter rivals, Celtic. Skipper James Tavernier said, in the aftermath of defeat, that Thursday would be Rangers’ next ‘cup final’, one that they would “come out firing for.”
Young Boys, on the other hand, got back to winning ways at the weekend with a 1-0 home win against lowly Lucerne. Boss Gerardo Seoane acknowledged that his side had been far from their best during two previous defeats (to Porto in Europe and Basel in the Swiss Super League), but added:
We were a long way from our peak and still won despite having so many injuries. That’s the sign of a good team.
He continued: “Playing at Rangers will be all about our will to succeed. It’s not about how fit we are now, it’s about how much we want to win and qualify.”
Group G permutations:
Rangers will be through with a draw against Young Boys.
Porto will be through with a win, or with a draw if Young Boys do not win (if the sides finish level Porto have a superior head-to-head record).
Young Boys will be through with a win, or with a draw if Porto lose (they would finish level on eight points with Feyenoord but have a superior head-to-head record).
Feyenoord will be through with a win against Porto – if Young Boys lose to Rangers.
Group B, involving FC Copenhagen (nine points) and Malmö (eight) – separated only by a bridge and a point – and erstwhile continental heavyweights Dynamo Kyiv (six), is also among the most finely-balanced.
Despite their reputation as regional heavyweights, Copenhagen have never defeated Swedish opposition in European competition, drawing their October game in Malmö 1-1. The Danish Superliga champions, replete with three Swedes (all internationals) in their squad – goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson and defenders Pierre Bengtsson and Sotirios Papagiannopoulos – must simply avoid defeat.
The Swedish side, however, may feel that their name is destined for a place in UEFA’s shiny draw pot, given a stadium-shuddering 96th minute winner against Dynamo last month, which leaves their destiny at their own feet. That goal was scored by veteran marksman Markus Rosenberg (once, briefly, of West Brom) in his last home game before retirement. What price one more late winner to cap off his final 90-odd minutes of pro football on Thursday night?
Group B permutations:
Copenhagen will be through with a win or draw at home to Malmö, or if Dynamo Kyiv do not win.
Malmö will be through with a win at Copenhagen, or if Dynamo Kyiv do not win.
Dynamo Kyiv will be through with a win at home to eliminated Lugano if Malmö do not win (if the sides finish level Dynamo Kyiv have a superior head-to-head record).
Surprise Bundesliga leaders – and weekend vanquishers of Bayern Munich – Borussia Mönchengladbach lead Group J on eight points, while resurgent Roma – similarly buoyed by a draw at Serie A table-toppers, Inter – have matched their haul. İstanbul Başakşehir trail by a point, but can split their more glamorous counterparts if they win in Germany.
A favourite of this column, Marcus Thuram, won the late penalty which was the decisive moment in their humbling of Bayern. Ramy Bensabaini’s towering header equalised Ivan Perisic’s opener and then, as stoppage time ticked by, Thuram was hauled down by a desperate Javi Martínez and Bensabaini dispatched the winner. Such a momentous victory will fill Marco Rose’s men with confidence as they welcome their Turkish visitors.
Likewise, Roma will only have themselves to blame if they don’t see off Austrian minnows Wolfsberg now that they appear to be hitting their stride domestically. As befitting a club of their stature, the giallorossi have lost only one of their last 13 home games in Europe (and that was to Real Madrid).
Renaissant defender Chris Smalling will most likely be missing with a knee injury that apparently threatens his abillity to play again this year, but first choice ‘keeper Pau Lopez has returned to training. Although progress is required for reasons of prestige and bank balance, the shape of Roma’s future will be more definitively affected by their potential takeover by the US-based Friedkin Group from embattled president James Pallotta.
Group J permutations:
Gladbach will be through with a win or draw; they could even lose and qualify if Roma also lose.
Roma will be through with a win or draw at home to eliminated Wolfsberg, or even a loss if İstanbul Başakşehir do not win.
İstanbul Başakşehir will be through with a win (they could finish level with Roma on eight points with a draw but have an inferior head-to-head record).
Head spinning with a pantheon of possibilities yet? Well, we finish with Group D, which could (at least theoretically) be seriously complicated…
Freddie Ljungberg’s Arsenal and last year’s semi-finalists Eintracht Frankfurt both have their destiny firmly within their own grasp – in fact the Gunners would have to totally arse(nal) it up by suffering a five-goal defeat – while Standard Liège must hope for help from the German side. Considering Arsenal’s position of near-guaranteed qualification, Ljungberg is expected to rest a number of senior pros ahead of a typically hectic festive schedule. Cup regulars Emile Smith-Rowe and Reiss Nelson may feature alongside Bukayo Saka and perhaps Nicolas Pépé will be offered the chance to build upon his recent upturn in form.
Group D permutations:
Arsenal will be through with a win or draw in Liège, or if Eintracht Frankfurt lose.
Frankfurt will be through with a win at home to eliminated Vitoria, or if Standard do not win.
Standard Liège will be through with a win against Arsenal – if Frankfurt lose.
However…Arsenal, Eintracht and Standard could all possibly end on ten points, with six points apiece, in a three-way ‘head-to-head’ mini-table. It would therefore go to goal difference in between the three teams, then to goals scored…and then to goals scored away. Then maybe ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ (best of five).