Eight of the last 13 winners of the Europa League have come from Spain, which is perhaps testament to the strength of La Liga or, conversely, proof that there are only three teams in the country capable of lifting the domestic title. Porto, in 2003, were the last team to lift the Europa League whilst maintain a title challenge. The demanding Thursday night schedule clearly takes its toll.
England’s hopefuls this year are Southampton and Manchester United, and although the latter are tournament favourites it seems unlikely Jose Mourinho will focus on Europe, if his side is to remain competitive in the Premier League. Just four of the last 30 finalists have been English clubs.
United possess the strongest squad in the competition, and even if Mourinho decides to field weakened sides in the group stages, they should still qualify comfortably ahead of Fenerbahce, Feyenoord and Zorya.
If United are still competitive in the Premier League in March, then Mourinho is unlikely to use his strongest squad in the Europa League.
The Portuguese has an outstanding record in Europe, lifting the Europa League with Porto in 2003 and the Champions League on two separate occasions. He has also reached the last four of a major European competition a record nine times as a manager.
However, if Man Utd are still competitive in the Premier League in March then Mourinho is unlikely to push too hard for success. Much will depend upon how challenging the draw is for the last 32 and last 16 rounds, because if Mourinho can grind out wins in these games and reach the last eight then the prospect of silverware will be too tempting to ignore.
No Italian club has reached the final of the Europa League since Parma in 1999, but Luciano Spalletti has every chance of ending this run with his exciting Roma team. Spalletti has been immensely successful since returning to the club in January. After a difficult first two games in charge, Roma went on to win 14 and draw three of their final 17 league games of the season, averaging a remarkable 2.42 points per game under his tutelage.
The loss of Miralem Pjanic to Juventus is a major blow to their title chances and the Old Lady’s addition of Gonzalo Higuain has made it virtually impossible for the likes of Roma to compete. As such, Spalletti will focus heavily on the Europa League towards the end of the season.
Kevin Strootman is like a new signing after an injury-hit 2015/16 and many of last year’s loan signings have been tied down to permanent contracts, including Stephan El Shaarawy, Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rudiger, and Edin Dzeko. This is a hugely talented team that is certainly capable of going all the way.
Like Roma, Inter Milan should find themselves in a strong position to challenge for the Europa League title in the final months of the season. The three time winners have not achieved success in the competition since 1998, but were Champions League winners just six years ago and have a rich history in Europe.
Frank de Boer made it to the round of 16 once during his successful six year stint as manager of Ajax, but is expected to perform significantly better in Milan after spending £98 million on new recruits over the summer.
His attractive brand of football will win him plaudits this season, but ultimately it is unlikely that he can steer them to European glory in his first full season at a top club. A run to the quarter-finals is probably the best they can hope for.
Athletic Club are one of the favourites for the tournament largely because of their success last season. Ernesto Valverde’s side reached the quarter-finals and were extremely unlucky to lose to eventual winners Sevilla on penalties. Had the result swung the other way, Athletic would probably have won the final.
However, a very quiet transfer window has left them in a relatively weak position, as has been proved by their underwhelming start to the new La Liga season. According to Sporting Intelligence, Spain is winning 45-4 in two-legged European ties against non-Spanish clubs; it would be unwise to assume Athletic cannot surprise us once again.
Seven of the last 17 Europa Leagues have been won by teams that dropped out of the Champions League groups stages, including Sevilla in 2015/16. Although none of these clubs are currently available to bet on, it is worth noting that the likes of Sevilla (who have won the last three tournaments), Borussia Monchengladbach, Tottenham, and Lyon could be joining in February.
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