The Group Stage of the Europa League kicks-off on September 20th when 12 groups of 4 teams begin the round-robin phase of the most exciting tournament on planet earth (or at least, that’s how I see it). After last week’s preview and prediction of Groups A, B and C the critics begged me to forecast who will make the Round of 32 out of Groups D, E and F. So let’s get it on.
Group D: Newcastle United FC (Eng), FC Girondins de Bordeaux (Fra), Club Brugge KV (Bel), CS Marítimo (Por)
The oddsmakers have Newcastle (5/4) and Bordeaux (15/8) as the most likely to make it out of the group with Club Brugges (7/1) and Maritimo (10/1) marked as the dark horses.
PREDICTION TO ADVANCE: Newcastle and Club Brugge
It’s no wonder Vegas has Newcastle advancing through this group – Alan Pardew’s squad is stacked with fantastic footballers. But the Magpies haven’t been as dominant on the pitch as they look on paper – drawing with Aston Villa in the league and narrowly edging out Greek little guys, Atromitos, 2-1 in the Europa League play-off round. This, combined with Newcastle’s inexperience in Europe, could make advancing a bit difficult. But I still think they get it done.
Bordeaux have looked sharp defensively this year, conceeding only one goal in three league matches, but have provided little in terms of firepower. Les Girondins biggest threat is 21 year old Henri Saivet, who’s netted twice in 4 appearances. Unfortunately, they have to compare with that tricky Belgian side, Club Brugge.
I really like Club Brugge. The undefeated side currently sits atop the Belgian Jupiler League, four points clear of mighty Anderlecht (still alive in the Champions League). Keep your eye on Israeli attacking midfielder Lior Refaelov, who is on a tear this season with five goals, as well as Columbian striker Carlos Bacca (4 goals), who’s coming out party should be this very contest.
Portugal’s Maritimo should provide little in terms of opposition. The tiny club hasn’t lost in their last nine competitive matches but provide little in terms of offense and would do well to secure a point in this group.
Group E: Molde (Nor), VfB Stuttgart (Ger), Steaua Bucharest (Rom), FC Copenhagen (Den)
VfB Stuttgart (8/11) and FC Copenhagen (21/5) are favored to make it out of Group E but Steaua Bucharest (15/2) and Molde (9/1) could both pose difficult challenges in this exciting group.
PREDICTION TO ADVANCE: Stuttgart and Steaua Bucharest
It’s been a tough start to the season for Stuttgart, losing its first two Bundesliga matches (0-1 to Wolfsburg and 1-6 to Bayern Munich) after skimping past Dinamo Moscow (2-1 aggregate) in the Europa League play-off round. But with Austrian international winger Martin Harnik (26 goals in 66 appearances) and the ageless German-Brazilian striker Cacau (78 goals in 278 appearances), the German outfit possesses the quality to take the group.
Like Stuttgart, Copenhagen is one club that has not been particularly impressive of late. Despite cruising through the Danish Superliga, Copenhagen has only won two of its last five matches, part of which can be attributed to relying on 19 year old striker Andreas Cornelius to carry the goal-scoring weight. At the end of the day, I think this hurts them – and is the reason why they head home.
Steaua Bucharest is an incredibly young and talented club that sits in second place in the surprisingly good Romanian league. With the emergence of Romanian winger Cristian Tănase – who loves to link up with striker Raul Rusescu (6 goals in 7 appearances) – Steau possesses the firepower to carry them through this group.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Molde currently sits in second place in the 2012 Norweigian Tippeligaen, even on points and 2 goals back of leader’s Strømsgodset. Molde will be an interesting squad to watch play and could have an outside chance at advancing with American Josh Gatt (6 goals; 15 appearances) and Ivorian Davy Agnan (12 goals; 21 appearances) leading the charge. I think they’ll snatch a win or two but advancing out of this group looks to be out of the cards.
Group F: AIK Solna (Swe), FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (Ukr), PSV Eindhoven (Hol), SSC Napoli (Ita)
Not surprisingly, the experts have Napoli (5/4) and PSV Eindhoven (7/4) advancing with Dnipro (8/1) and AIK (12/1) as the longshots.
PREDICTION TO ADVANCE: Napoli and PSV
Football hipsters across the world will be calmly excited when Napoli dominates this group. With the likes of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamšík and Goran Pandev, it’s not going to be a problem.
PSV should be equally un-phased by the competition in Group F. Last week’s 5-1 demolition of AZ has the Dutch side undefeated in their last five of all contests. And if you’re interested in contributing to the next time your buddy brings up the omnipresent ‘Belgium is a sleeper football nation’ conversation (so hot right now), watch striker Dries Martens play – he’s quite nasty.
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk is currently third in the Ukrainian Premier League behind Shakhtar and Kiev but ahead of fellow Europa League studs, Metalist Kharkiv. Managed by Juande Ramos, Dnipro is an outside shot to surprise in this group but ultimately, the quality isn’t good enough to unseat the likes of Napoli and PSV.
Tied with Malmo and Hacken atop the Swedish Allsvenskan, AIK have played some very good football of late. With a dramatic 2-0 second leg victory over CSKA Moscow, AIK took down the mighty Russian club indicating that as 12/1 longshots, they’re not a bad bet. But I still don’t like losing money.