16 teams remain. There can only be 1 winner…
If you are reading this article, I am sure that you followed each of the Round of 32 ties of the UEFA Europa League, the second legs of which were played last week. Leicester, Lille and Bayer Leverkusen were among the big-name teams to surprisingly be knocked out and now that the draw for the Round of 16 has taken place, I have decided to preview the main candidates to go all the way and taste European success, come May.
Tottenham’s chances of winning the Europa League are arguably harder to predict than those of any other team in this list. The greatest argument in their favour is that they possess a manager who likes to remind everyone that he has never failed to win this competition, in José Mourinho. However, with Mourinho’s job at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (which desperately needs to sell its naming rights) looking unsecure, whether or not they will have his trophy-winning experience working for them come May is uncertain at best.
Spurs may have a Carabao Cup final date against Manchester City in April to look forward to, but the only time that they have faced any opposition of note this season in a cup competition, they lost 5-4 to Everton, with their worst defensive display since they lost 7-2 to Bayern Munich. Tottenham fans will hope that Mourinho can finally end their trophy demons for good, but if they play as they have lately, that is not looking likely.
That being said, with the Lilywhites looking on course for mid-table mediocrity in the Premier League, unless they can find a drastic upturn in their domestic form, their full focus should be on the Europa League, as we enter the tournament’s latter stages. Although Mourinho is keen to state that top 4 is still mathematically possible, realistically, the Europa League appears to be Tottenham’s most viable route back into the Champions League. With star man Harry Kane set to re-evaluate his future in the summer and an expensive new stadium still to pay for, qualification for the Champions League is a must for Tottenham if their chairman, Daniel Levy, is to achieve his lofty ambitions.
On individual quality, Tottenham have arguably the best players of the remaining teams in this tournament at their disposal. However, their stuttering attack has not been firing on all cylinders, arguably suffocated by Mourinho’s cautious style of play, and their defence has been a mess all season. Whether they can get this in order in time to triumph is questionable. However, with Gareth Bale finally beginning to find some form and Dele Alli showing a glimpse of his quality with his bicycle kick goal in midweek, Tottenham may turn yet another corner in what has been a topsy turvy season for them.
Fiercely embroiled in a race for the top 4 in Serie A, Roma could be forgiven for not having their full attention on their Europa League campaign. 5 Italians teams are still battling it out for what would seem like only 2 remaining Champions League places, bar a big drop off by either Milan side. Currently occupying one of these 2 positions, Roma may struggle to juggle their domestic commitments with this competition, but talent-wise, they certainly have the ability to last the distance.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan looks a shrewd signing from Arsenal, providing 17 goal involvements in 23 Serie A appearances this campaign. The burden of providing goals for Roma has been split evenly across several players and it is this strength in depth that will give them hope that they can compete on all fronts.
Shakhtar Donetsk will by no means be a walkover, showcasing their attacking flair when scoring 5 goals past Real Madrid in the Champions League group stages, including 3 at the Santiago Bernabéu. However, their defensive frailties are there for all to see and Roma will be expected to capitalise on these and progress to the quarter finals, where it becomes anybody’s game.
Despite Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s insistence that his side are still in the Premier League title race (which is rather peculiar, considering he denied their title credentials when they were much closer to now runaway leaders Manchester City), the reality is that United are still in a battle for the top 4 in the Premier League. Therefore, if Solskjær is true to his word that United will continue to fight with their strongest team on all fronts, then, as the campaign wears on, his players will begin to get fatigued.
This certainly seems like a possibility, with Solskjær starting several of his first-team, including star man Bruno Fernandes, in the second leg against Real Sociedad. This was a surprise to many – me included – for, with the match at Old Trafford and the aggregate score already being 4-0 in United’s favour, the match, by all means, should have been a dead rubber. Now, United did progress comfortably, so criticising Solskjær may seem harsh, but it does seem to indicate that he has a lack of faith in the rest of the squad, particularly as he substituted Marcus Rashford on the pitch at half-time, despite his side still being 4 goals to the good. Did he really not have full confidence in a result at that stage?
A club with the calibre of Manchester United needs to be in the Champions League. However, with a game against Manchester City coming up in the Premier League, before their first leg of the Round of 16 tie against AC Milan, United could be in a far more precarious position, with regard to top 4, by the time that game comes around. If they stutter in the game against their local rivals – as I expect – then Solskjær may want to focus on solidifying their league position. If they come up with an unlikely victory however, with top 4 then more secure and a title out of reach, expect the Red Devils to go with all gun’s blazing in search of some silverware.
Solskjaer insists Man Utd ARE still in title race despite 10-point gap to Man City… as ‘surprises’ happen in football https://t.co/xPYKJB1kpb
— The Sun – Man Utd (@SunManUtd) February 21, 2021
Unlike United, despite a couple of poor results lately, the Rossoneri are still very much in with a shout of winning their domestic league, firmly in the race for the Serie A title. Therefore, their uninspired displays in their tie against FK Crvena Zvezda – where they did not always field their strongest XI – can, to a degree, be understood. Their fans would much prefer to see them return to the pinnacle of Italian football, dealing a blow to their city rivals Inter in the process, then progress to the latter stages of what is only Europe’s secondary competition.
The Europa League, while a prestigious competition, is valued nowhere near as highly as the Champions League and, as a result, Stefano Pioli’s men quite rightly seem to be prioritising ending Juventus’ domestic dominance.
Why then, have I included AC Milan on this list? The answer to that is twofold.
Firstly, the aforementioned domestic dip will have Pioli concerned that, despite his side’s much improved form this campaign, they may walk away trophyless. Subsequently, their fans that really should be appreciative of their team’s upturn in fortunes, may come away from this season disappointed, looking only at what might have been. The Europa League provides an additional avenue for success for Milan, hence I expect them to come out with rejuvenated enthusiasm for the tie against United, in what is a clash between two of the most decorated clubs in European footballing history.
Secondly and more simply, they have too much quality within their squad to not be considered contenders. Whilst they were poor in Belgrade, they progressed. They are not the first team to be stifled in Red Star’s less than welcoming stadium, with the infamous tunnel walk that takes opposing players more than a minute to reach the pitch from their dressing room. At this stage of the tournament, performances, in all honesty, are irrelevant, as results are the only currency that prevents you from heading home empty-handed. Milan have consistently achieved positive results this year, both domestically and in Europe, so despite my doubts over their capabilities, they have to be in this list.
Like their neighbours in North London, Arsenal have had a shocker of a season, not even having the brief flirtation with the top of the table that Tottenham did. Handing large, long-term contracts to ageing players, such as Willian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, looks like a costly mistake, as does allowing loyal servant Emiliano Martínez to depart for a modest fee. Arsenal have needed their youngsters to bail them out on several occasions this season, with academy graduates Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka becoming important members of the first team squad.
Progression in Europe is vital, if the Gunners want to avoid West Ham and Chelsea asserting their case to be the two best sides in London. A lack of firepower and experience in big-game moments are most likely to prove Arsenal’s downfall in this goal though. Mikel Arteta may have improved his side’s leaky defence, but he has arguably done so to their detriment of their formerly attacking style of play, with Arsenal scoring far fewer goals than any Premier League team currently occupying a position in the top half of the table.
Still, hunger should see them reach the latter stages of the tournament and rightly be considered as contenders, for if they get knocked out, their season is effectively over. This gritty determination was on full display in their comeback win over Benfica in the Round of 32. If they have genuine aspirations of the trophy though, fundamental defensive errors, such as Dani Ceballos’ for Rafa Silva’s goal in the Benfica win, simply cannot be made. The other top teams in this list will not let Arsenal back into the game in the fashion that the Portuguese team did.
Karen Carney slams 'criminal' mistake by Arsenal midfielder Dani Ceballos against Benfica https://t.co/xwjQH8NRrC
— MailOnline Sport (@MailSport) February 25, 2021
Earlier on I spoke of José Mourinho’s past success in this competition potentially playing a huge factor in Tottenham’s chances of lifting the Europa League trophy. There are very few people in world football with a more impressive Europa League record than Mourinho, but Villareal arguably have one in boss Unai Emery. Emery, well known in England for a failed spell with Tottenham’s North London neighbours Arsenal, is a revered manager in Spain, largely due to the three consecutive Europa Leagues that he won with Sevilla.
He has already begun to transform Villareal, breaking the club’s record of 18 matches unbeaten in all competitions. Villareal are realistically not in the race for the top 4 in La Liga, so will need to win the Europa League if they want a place among Europe’s elite next season. They lack the quality and funding of many of the other teams in this list, but their squad possesses a unique togetherness, with their players all on the same page, working towards a common goal. This determination is why they have lost the same number of league games as Barcelona and Real Madrid this season, although an attack that has looked blunt at various stages in the campaign has resulted in them drawing far more games than any other side in La Liga.
Whether they have the firepower to project them towards the trophy can be doubted, but their European form when attacking has far outshone their domestic goals-per-game ratio. For me, they are certainly underdogs to be looked out for, with their defensive solidity meaning they will likely remain in ties against tough opponents until the late stages of the match, when anything can then happen. Victory would represent arguably the greatest triumph in Villareal’s history, but fans should definitely dare to dream.
Regardless of your opinion on the legitimacy of the 3rd placed team from each Champions League group dropping down to Europe’s secondary competition, it certainly does spice up these knockout stages, by adding some additional quality among the bunch. However, unlike past years, there are only 2 teams remaining that qualified via these means that will have serious ambitions of getting their hands on the Europa League trophy; Manchester United and Ajax.
The Dutch side are seemingly on their way to a record 27th Eredivisie title, possessing a sufficient gap to their main domestic rivals PSV Eindhoven that they will feel that they can rest players to focus on winning their first European trophy in the 21st century. Ajax, as we have come to expect, have recovered yet again from selling their best players for huge profits, utilising their remarkable academy to develop even more young talent that scouts from the other big clubs in Europe will no doubt soon have their eyes on.
Their high-scoring, free-flowing style of play, developed under the tutelage of Erik ten Hag, shall bring excitement to the knockout stages of this tournament and, although they will be disappointed to have been knocked out of Europe’s premier competition, this may have been a blessing in disguise, for the Europa League is a tournament that they have a much larger chance of winning. 2017’s finalists will look to go one step further this time around and, possessing a solid blend between youth and experience, there is little to suggest that their current squad is not up to the task.
However, not all of Ajax’s full-strength squad will be with them on this journey. If they are to be triumphant, they will have to do it without both star goalkeeper André Onana, who was banned from football for a year for a doping violation and record £20m signing, Sébastien Haller, who was not named in their European squad, due to an utterly bizarre administrative error. These 2 omissions may prove costly to Ajax’s chances, affecting them at both ends of the pitch. With quality often prevailing in the key moments in games, Ajax having to go with their second-choice goal scorer and second-choice shot stopper is far from ideal.
Between this and the Haller administrative error yesterday, a couple of days to forget for Ajax. https://t.co/kV56bvtIVZ
— Chris Brennan (@Brennan_Media97) February 5, 2021
The bookmakers have Manchester United as early favourites to claim a second Europa League crown, despite their unfortunate draw against AC Milan. However, with such a small contingent of players being so instrumental to United’s success – and Solskjær refusing to rotate his key men – I am not alone in believing that a drop in form awaits them before the end of the season, so, while they make this list, I am not predicting European success for them this season.
AC Milan and Roma’s domestic commitments in Serie A make them less likely to go all the way in this competition in my eyes, although Milan’s prospects may suddenly improve – ironically – if they continue their recent form and quickly drop out of the Serie A title race. This leaves Spurs, Arsenal and Villareal, whose mixed domestic form has left them with little else to fight for, as well as Ajax, whose superb domestic form has meant that the rest of their season is practically wrapped up already, bar a late collapse of monumental proportions. From that, you would probably expect Ajax to be my favourites, but the reality is that the Eredivisie is nowhere near the standard of the Premier League or La Liga and I would certainly expect the two London sides to win the Dutch league at a canter, were they to participate in it.
Therefore, I have decided to go with managerial experience to make Tottenham my favourites to win the Europa League, with Villareal the dark horses that I would back, if I were a betting man. The importance of substitutions and tactical adjustments in tournaments like these cannot be understated and few individuals have demonstrated their ability to perfect these decisions in the key moments of games quite like José Mourinho and Unai Emery have. Tottenham undoubtedly possess the greater ability of the two sides, hence they are just about my favourites. We know Gareth Bale lives for the big moments and, with him showcasing his return to form by registering two goals and an assist in a remarkable performance against Burnley, I am tipping him to have a big part to play in finally winning a trophy for the side that made him the player that he is today.
I hope that you enjoyed this article ‘Who are the main contenders to win the Europa League?’. Who do you think is most likely to taste European success, come May? Let us know in the comments below!
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