Monday, October 18, 2021

Europa League: Eight things to look out for, including Leicester’s tricky start against Napoli

Four months on from Villarreal’s penalty shootout triumph over Manchester United, Europa League football is back – so prepare for the ‘woah’ of UEFA’s competition anthem, played before every game on BT Sport.

With both of last year’s finalists starting this season in the Champions League (in the same group), 32 different teams are hoping to make it all the way to the final in Seville.

Leicester and West Ham represent the Premier League while Celtic and Rangers, who both dropped out of Champions League qualifying, are involved once again.

The introduction of the UEFA Conference League means the Europa League format has changed slightly this season. The number of teams competing in the groups has been reduced from 48 to 32, with the eight group winners progressing to the last 16.

The eight runners-up will have to take part in an additional knockout phase with eight third-ranked teams from the Champions League. This makes winning the group even more important – teams will have two extra midweeks off too.

With plenty of exciting match-ups, Sportsmail takes a look at eight things to look out for ahead of the first round of fixtures.

Brendan Rodgers’ miserable run in Europe continued last season with Leicester eliminated in the round of 32, despite topping their group.

Rodgers struggled in the European competitions at both Celtic and Liverpool and will be hoping to turn his fortunes around this term. However, it’s a tough start for his team, with a home fixture against Napoli up first.

Napoli have won three games from three in Serie A, including a 2-1 victory over Juventus. Luciano Spalletti will have his team well organised and they will come to the King Power full of confidence.

The Foxes have lacked consistency so far with two wins and two defeats from their opening four league games. Leicester and Napoli are the favourites to top Group C, with Spartak Moscow and Legia Warsaw the other two teams competing.

Rodgers knows the battle to finish in the Premier League’s top four will be even tougher this term but winning the Europa League would gift the Foxes a place in the Champions League next season. He’ll be hoping for a strong start.

After four eliminations at the qualifying stage, West Ham will finally compete in their first European group game when they take on Dinamo Zagreb.

The Hammers dropped out during qualifying for the 1999-2000 and 2006-2007 UEFA Cup before suffering the same fate two years on the bounce in the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 Europa League.

David Moyes’ side qualified automatically after finishing sixth in the Premier League and they will be hoping for a long run in the competition.

The club were given a more favourable draw than Leicester with Rapid Vienna and Genk the other challengers in Group H.

None of the ties will be easy, but the Hammers are unbeaten in their first four league games and should be confident going into the clash with Zagreb.

as Fenerbache take on Eintracht Frankfurt in Group D

Eintracht Frankfurt are the home team on Thursday but the German city has a significant Turkish community, who may be on hand to cheer on their opponents, Fenerbache.

The German supporters may not give Fenerbache captain Mesut Ozil a particularly warm welcome, however.

The midfielder retired from international football for Germany in 2018 after accusing German FA of racism, claiming he had been made a ‘scapegoat’ following their group-stage World Cup exit.

Ozil, who is of mixed German and Turkish heritage, had been criticised for being pictured with controversial Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Fenerbache have won three of their first four league fixtures, drawing the other, while Eintracht Frankfurt are without a win in the Bundesliga. Oliver Glasner’s side have drawn three and lost one.

On current form, it could be a happy return to Germany for Ozil.

Celtic were dealt a tough draw last season with AC Milan and Lille in their group and they face a similary difficult set of ties this term.

Real Betis, who finished sixth in LaLiga last season, are first up for Ange Postecoglou’s side with Bayer Leverkusen and Hungarian club Ferencvaros their other two fixtures.

Betis have Nabil Fekir leading the line while Hector Bellerin joined the club on loan from Arsenal on transfer deadline day.

Bayer Leverkusen have Croatia international Patrik Schick, who will be hoping for more goals in Scotland after his stunning long-range lob in the Euros. Ferencvaros were narrowly beaten by Young Boys in Champions League qualifying and will be no pushovers.

But Celtic are starting to look more confident under Postecoglou and have improved since their disappointing Champions League elimination. They will be targeting a place in the knockouts.

Rangers were flying when they beat Lyon 3-0 away from home in 2007. They had already beaten Stuttgart and went on to draw 0-0 with Barcelona, putting themselves in pole position to qualify from their Champions League group.

But Walter Smith’s side collapsed in the second round of fixtures. They were beaten 2-0 by Barcelona and 3-2 by Stuttgart, meaning they needed a result in their final game with Lyon. But after beating the French side 3-0 away from home, they suffered a defeat by the same scoreline at Ibrox and were subsequently eliminated.

The Gers dropped into the UEFA Cup and went all the way to the final but were beaten 2-0 by Zenit St Petersburg.

Steven Gerrard will be hoping his side get a better result than the last time Rangers hosted Lyon and the Gers are in good form, with four wins from five games in the SPL.

Lyon have two wins, two draws and a defeat from their first five fixtures.

This one has the potential to be a cracker, with both teams having made strong starts to their league campaigns.

PSV were left disappointed by their elimination from the Champions League but are going strong in the Eredivisie, with four wins from four.

Nine different players have contributed to their 14 goals this season and they are looking strong going into their first group game.

England U21 international Noni Madueke, who has been linked with Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United, is one to watch. The 19-year-old has six goals from 11 games in all compeititons this season.

Sociedad have bounced back from an opening day defeat by Barcelona with three wins from three.

Mikel Oyarzabal, Ander Barrenetxea and Alexander Isak will cause problems for the hosts while David Silva provides leadership and experience.

Monaco have had two seasons without European football after finishing 17th and 9th in Ligue 1 but their third-place finish in the 2020-2021 campaign earned them a spot in Champions League qualifying.

However, they dropped into the Europa League after being beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk and go into their first group game struggling for form.

Niko Kovac’s side have taken just two points from their first five league games and are already nine points behind Paris Saint-Germain.

They host Austrian side Sturm Graz on and if they want to finish top of the group they need to be targetting three points.

With more difficult fixtures against Sociedad and PSV to come, it’s crucial Monaco get off to a good start.
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