The Race For The Europa League Knockout Phase Heats Up

Europa League group stage header

As we approach Matchday 5 of this season’s Europa League, the 48 entrants who are competing in the group stage will soon be whittled down to just 24 and once this number is added to the eight Champions League dropouts, we will know the full list of clubs who have made the Round of 32. 

Of course, with two rounds of fixtures still to play, a lot can change and although four clubs have already booked their place in the first stage of the knockout phase, there are still 20 berths still up for grabs via this route. 

From the lucky quartet that has already had their passport stamped for activity in the New Year, two of those represent the Premier League and although Arsenal are struggling domestically, the same cannot be said for their continental exploits. 

Why Arsenal should set focus on the Europa League?

After losing in the final of the 2019 edition of the competition, manager Mikel Arteta will be hoping that his players can go one better this time around and in doing so, it may prove to be the only realistic hope of playing in the Champions League next season. 

That’s because winning the Europa League offers the carrot of playing in Europe’s premier club competition the following year and when you consider just how poor Arsenal have been in the league as of late, it may mean Arteta has to put all his eggs in one basket. 

The Foxes eased past group stage

Something that the other current Premier League qualifier may not need to do, as Leicester is sitting in the top four at the time of writing. Although European football was just a reward for the Foxes’ efforts last season, they should arguably be playing on Tuesday or Wednesday instead. 

That’s because this time last year, Brendan Rodgers was overseeing a rather quickfire transformation at the King Power Stadium. Although Liverpool were already winning the league by a country mile, Leicester looked well place to finish in the top four. 

However, a global pandemic has a habit of ruining your best-laid plans and once “Project Restart” had got underway, Leicester simply was not the same. They were overtaken by both Manchester United and Chelsea in the race for a Champions League berth. 

If there was disappointment within the East Midlands outfit’s ranks, then they certainly are not showing it and early qualification for the Round of 32 is certainly a testament to that.

A single draw away to Liga NOS table underdogs SC Braga is the only stain in the almost perfect group stage route so far for Rodgers’ boys.

They are joined by Serie A’s Roma and the Bundesliga’s Hoffenheim in terms of early progression. 

Are Mourinho’s Tottenham focused on their Europa campaign?

While although we already know the fate of two of the Premier League’s representatives in the competition, there is still one more to be accounted for and this comes in the way of Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur. 

The current Premier League leaders have not had it all their own way in Europe. Although they have cleared a number of qualification round hurdles, they recently slipped when traveling to Royal Antwerp in Matchday 2.  

The loss in Belgium has slightly undone the hard work elsewhere. Going into Matchday 5, the North London outfit find themselves lying second in the group, as they prepare for a trip to Austria on Thursday. 

A trip that will see them go up against LASK. After beating the Austrians by three goals to nil on Matchday 1, Jose Mourinho will not only hope for more of the same from his players but also hope to top Group J. 

Nonetheless, the latter part of that request is easier said than done. When you consider that Royal Antwerp is going up against Ludogorets and how poor they have been throughout, one would imagine another defeat for the Bulgarian outfit. 

While should you fancy placing some money on what looks like being a banker, most betting sites are listing odds for this Matchday. Therefore, backing the Belgians should be considered useful accumulator fodder, just make sure to place your money in the right place

The race to top Group J also takes on extra intensity, if only becomes of the teams that could fall out of the Champions League trapdoor, and with Real Madrid and PSG potentially waiting in the shadows, a pairing with either of those is the last thing Tottenham will be looking for. 

Then again, topping the mini league is still in their hands and all they need to do is beat LASK and then beat Royal Antwerp, to make sure that it is eventually a job well done for the team that finished sixth in last season’s Premier League. 

Two Scottish giants, two different fates

Looking at continued British interest in the competition, the focus shifts to Scotland. With Rangers top of Group D, they will hope Matchday 5 is finally the night in which they can secure their safe passage to the Round of 32. 

Rangers have gone up against Benfica twice this season and on both occasions have looked in the driving seat, with three points approaching on the horizon.

Only for the Portuguese outfit to snatch a draw in their Matchday 3 and 4 meetings. 

Outcomes that can only be described as four dropped points and the difference between already joining the likes of Arsenal and Leicester in the next round. However, the blue half of Glasgow has a chance to make that right when playing host to Standard Liege on Thursday.  

Their rival for the top of the group, though, is only Benfica. And, to be fair, Jorge Jesus Benfica is struggling unexpectedly in the Liga NOS schedule, trailing third to Sporting and SC Braga.

Despite, having two former Premier League veterans in their backline – Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen – the Portuguese team’s defense looks shaky, so don’t be surprised if the Rangers top this group.

Steven Gerrard’s men have been the dominant force in the SPFL Premiership this season and on current form, looks like they are on course to stop arch-rivals Celtic from earning the mythical 10 in a row.  

Celtic’s early exit

A decade-long streak of league championships is still in the balance for Celtic, as they not only have a lot of catching up to do but they also need to decide whether the current man in charge, is the right man in charge. 

Part of the reason why Celtic boss Neil Lennon is under so much pressure is because of Celtic’s abject failure in the Europe League. Although they travel to the San Siro to face A.C. Milan on Thursday, it is nothing more than a dead rubber. 

Of course, there will be 24 fixtures taking place across the continent on Matchday 5.

Once the dust has settled on another evening of action, we will get a better idea of what is still remaining for those clubs looking to progress further in the competition.  

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