September was a tricky month for UEFA. Those faceless mannequins at the governing body’s lavish HQ in Nyon – those mega-moneyed decision-makers who we love to hate – would have been relieved, like fans, when continental club action got back under way a fortnight ago. Games and goals always prove the best distraction from negative publicity.
The ongoing battle for the soul (and wallet) of European football came to an uneasy stalemate after the latest talks with the Andrea Agnelli-fronted ECA (European Club Association). Therefore, the future make-up of both the Europa and Champions Leagues remain delicately in the balance.
Elsewhere, confused looks and rolling eyes met news that winning the Champions League last season hadn’t put Liverpool top of UEFA’s latest rankings – it even left them further behind Barcelona despite defeating the blaugrana in the semis.
Jurgen Klopp’s side are, in fact, now ranked eighth, just one spot ahead of Arsenal (who, naturally, are ranked above Chelsea, their Europa League final conquerors). For their success, Chelsea were rewarded with a drop from 12th to 14th. Admittedly, these coefficients are calculated over a period of five years but the overall impression was one of bafflement.
Following on the heels of an incident-packed Matchday One, UEFA’s latest brainchild – a seemingly superfluous third continental competition named the UEFA Europa Conference League – was announced, last week, to a widespread reception of apathy and/or ridicule. Perhaps Vauxhall would like to become title sponsor?
The tournament’s stated aim is to broaden the number of nations and clubs represented in Europe-wide midweek football: less than a third of member nations are represented in the 2019/20 Champions League group stage, with nearly two-thirds of those teams hailing from just five nations.
While it should achieve this laudible objective, the increasingly convoluted and congested nature of UEFA’s future calendar may leave fans longing for the relative rarity and simplicity of the Champions and UEFA Cup eras.
But never mind the admin, here’s the football.
Still re-establishing themselves at this level, Rangers are the only side to have made it from the first qualifying round to the group stage this season – repeating last year’s achievement. As such, it has been a long road to even reach this point.
Adhering to this column’s theme, boss Steven Gerrard has been critical of UEFA rules restricting his selections, though it did the Glasgow club no harm during the impressive 1-0 defeat of Feyenoord at an emotional Ibrox.
Competition rules only permit a first-team squad of 22 players, which must include four ‘home-grown’ members. Gerrard complained:
If we could have a team suited to domestic games and another to European matches, we would (rotate more). But the rules make it impossible. You can only pick 22 players, which is crazy. And four have to be association trained.
This week’s opponents, Young Boys, were beaten 2-1 by Porto and are suffering a substantial injury crisis. Ex-Ajax schemer Miralem Sulejmani will miss out, alongside authoritative Guinea international centre-back Mohamed Ali Camara, midfielder Sandro Lauper and Luxembourg international Christopher Martins.
Despite this – and the fact they will travel with little support due to the club declining their official allocation in response to recent citiations for sectarian singing – Gerrard has been portraying Rangers as underdogs for the clash in Berne.
Traditionally strong at Europa League level, the Swiss champions have in fact struggled at home in recent campaigns; drawing four and losing three of their last nine encounters. Meanwhile, Rangers’ potent attacking threat, in the form of Alfredo Morelos and evergreen Jermain Defoe, offers them distinct hope of at least picking up another point.
In Group J, RZ Pellets WAC welcome Serie A giants…hang on, RZ Pellet-who?
More commonly known as Wolfsberg (and not to be confused with fellow participants Wolfsburg, of Germany, or even Wolverhampton’s Wanderers), the tiny club sponsored by a wood pellet manufacturer enjoyed a stunning start to the group phase on Matchday One. Their fairytale trip to traditional European cruiserweights, Borussia Monchengladbach, resulted in a scarcely believable 4-0 victory, despite only having 30% possession.
WAC’s modest squad is led by influential midfielder Mario Leitgeb and Israeli striker Shon Weissman, who both netted on that memorable night. Weissman in particular (with seven goals in his first four games after signing on a free this summer – and several more since) will threaten a Roma defence which may again feature on-loan Chris Smalling, many people’s Man of the Match against Lecce.
In a true David v Goliath fixture, the Italian giants will, in fact, travel to Graz, some 80km away from the Alpine town of Wolfsberg, as the Austrian Bundesliga side are not permitted to use their unassuming Lavanttal-Arena. Promoted to the top flight for the first time seven years ago, WAC claimed their highest ever Bundesliga finish in 2018/19 by taking third place behind champions RB Salzburg. Truly, only the common club crest of a wolf (Roma are known as i Lupi) links these disparate sides.
Back in the Eternal City, Roma’s eternal rivals Lazio will be entertaining Coupe de France winners Rennes, both sides in search of points following a disappointing opening matchday. The Breton side failed to see off Celtic – notoriously flaky on their continental travels – at home, while Lazio slipped to a 1-2 loss against CFR Cluj (Celtic’s Champions League qualifying conquerors and opponents once again on Thursday).
It will be a clash of cup champions, as Lazio won the Coppa Italia last spring; Rennes unforgettably turned over PSG in their domestic final on penalties.
The Serie A side should start favourites: Lazio’s home record in the Europa League group stage is formidable. Appearing for a joint-record eighth time at this stage, they had been on a run of 17 group games undefeated in Rome (W13 D4) until they lost to eventual semi-finalists Eintracht Frankfurt in the final group game last season.
Simone Inzaghi’s outfit summarily dismissed struggling Genoa at the Olimpico in Serie A at the weekend, with Ciro Immobile scoring upon his return to the starting XI. A combination of two from Joaquin Correa (an injury doubt), Felipe Caicedo and Immobile should provide the cutting edge for i biancocelesti, but it is Sergei Milinkovic-Savic who offers the most imposing threat from a deeper role.
M’Baye Niang, scorer of Rennes’ penalty against Celtic, will be back on familiar soil, having developed his career in Italy with Milan, Torino and Genoa. Head coach Julien Stephan – much-heralded son of Didier Deschamps’ national team assistant Guy can also call upon the ascendant talents of Senegal number one Edoard Mendy and prodigious teenage midfielder Edoardo Camavinga.
The former reserve team boss oversaw a 1-1 draw with Marseille on Sunday and might have hoped that the partial closure of the Olimpico (due to the familiar scourge of ultras’ fascist salutes during last season’s knockout stage) will aid their cause. However, Lazio are well accustomed to performing in front of meagre support, averaging around 16,000 fans for their group games last year.
Ambience should not be so much of an issue at Beskitas‘ notoriously raucous Eagle’s Nest (or Besiktas Park as UEFA have censoriously branded it), in Istanbul.
Wolverhampton Wanderers’ unlikely qualification for Europe was celebrated in eager anticipation of nights like these. However, they will not be able, nor expecting, to merely enjoy the experience.
Both sides are determined to get off the mark, with Wolves’ opening loss against Braga coming amid a sluggish start domestically. Likewise, Besiktas collapsed to a 2-4 defeat v Slovan Bratislava (conceding twice in added-on time) then unthinkably slumped into the Super Lig relegation zone after a heavy defeat at Trabzonspor last weekend.
In the plus column, they have plenty of experience in the bank. With 54 and 52 Europa League appearances respectively, Besiktas duo Jeremain Lens and Víctor Ruiz are among only seven players to have passed the competition’s half-century mark. Mohamed Elneny and Adem Ljajic are expected to return after suspension, while chief goal threat Buruk Yilmaz continues his comeback from injury.
Remarkably, Wolves are the 15th different English side to have qualified for the group stages but ambitious coach Nuno is not minded to settle for just that. Boasting a nucleus of experienced European campaigners, such as Joao Moutinho, Raul Jimenez and Rui Patricio, this game may prove vital in fulfilling their justified aim of continuing the journey into 2020.
Influential forward Diogo Jota misses out this week, but ex-Milan man Patrick Cutrone could deputise for a Wolves side that should target all three points against a team in transition.
So, with these and several other intriguing ties to occupy armchair fans, if UEFA can sit on their hands and avoid any further calamities, an enticing menu of football should speak for itself.