The UEFA Europa League: A Group Stage Preview

December 11, 2018

- Grant Whittington

While there’s a tendency to view the Europa League as the less affluent cousin of the Champions League, it remains an extremely popular tournament outside of football’s elite.

It also continues to offer solace to larger clubs that have stumbled on hard times and tumbled out of the Champions League, with both Chelsea and Manchester United having won the tournament during the last seven years. Arsenal also reached the semi-finals last year.

This year’s group stage is now drawing to a dramatic close, with the two remaining Scottish participants hoping to secure a place in the last 32. In this post, we’ll look at their prospects and offer an insight into the final round of fixtures…

What has yet to be Decided for the Brits?

Ultimately, Chelsea and Arsenal have already secured qualification to the knockout stage of the tournament, with the Blues topping Group L with a perfect record of 15 points in five matches.

With nine points separating them from second place, their final game against MOL Vidi FC is little more than a formality, although the Hungarian side will be hoping to secure a win that will help them to pip BATE Borisov to the second qualification spot.

The Gunners, who are currently in the midst of an impressive 21-match unbeaten run under the stewardship of new manager Unai Emery, have also confirmed first place in Group E, despite the relative proximity of second place Sporting Lisbon.

Arsenal are three points ahead of the Portuguese giants in second with one game to go, but will qualify in first regardless of their result against bottom club FK Qarabag thanks to their superior head-to-head record. The Gunners won 1-0 at the Estádio José Alvalade back in October, before drawing 0-0 in the return game at the Emirates last month.

As for Sporting, they’re also guaranteed to qualify in second place, as they currently have a seven point cushion over their final day opponents Vorskla Poltava.

Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic side will also be hoping to secure qualification to the knockout phase, despite the fact that it looked unlikely just a few weeks ago. A narrow, 1-0 win over Rosenberg last time out saw the SPL side move three points clear of RB Leipzig in Group B, while a single point from their final game will confirm their passage to the next stage.

However, Celtic must entertain an excellent FC Red Bull Salzburg side on Thursday, with the Austrian team already qualified in first place with 15 points and a 100% record to their name after five matches. In contrast, Leipzig will visit a Rosenborg outfit that is both bottom and pointless in the Europa League so far.

Celtic also have a negative head-to-head record with Leipzig, whose away goal during a 2-1 defeat at Celtic Park has afford them a critical edge. So, if Celtic lose to Salzburg, Leipzig will simply need to claim three points in Norway to pip the hoops to second place.

Then we come to Group G, where all four teams are capable of qualifying for the knockout stage. This number includes third place Rangers, who have six points from five games and will close their campaign with a trip to second place Rapid Vienna.

In simple terms, a win for Rangers will see them qualify in either first or second place, depending on Villarreal’s result at home against Spartak Moscow. Conversely, a defeat in Austria will see the Gers eliminated, so this at least provides some clarity for Steven Gerrard’s men.

A draw won’t be enough for Rangers either, courtesy of the nature of the group and final day fixtures. While a tie would leave Rangers with seven points to their name in the group, there’s no result in the corresponding fixture that will leave them ahead of either Villarreal of Spartak Moscow.

Tying up the Other Loose Ends with the Final Round of Fixtures

There’s a handful of other loose ends that need tying up during the final round of fixtures, with Bayer Leverkusen and FC Zürich both competing for top spot after previously securing qualification.

Group F is also an interesting one, as while Real Betis are assured of qualification, Italian giants AC Milan and Olympiakos will do battle for the second spot at the San Siro. Milan have a three point lead and a 3-1 victory in the head-to-head reckoning in their favour, however, so only a heavy win for the Greeks will deny them.

Milan could also top the group with a win, so long as Betis fail to achieve victory at bottom club F91 Dudelange.

Group I is also fascinating from a neutral perspective, as once again all four sides can still qualify for the knockout phase.

The game between Besiktas and Malmö FF is particularly fascinating, as these teams are separated by a single point and will contest an extremely close match-up in Turkey.

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