Hugo Greenhalgh looks at the Europa League matches worth watching this week…
Due to the size of its fixture list, and the obscure nature of the teams involved, the Europa League holds a strange sort of voyeuristic appeal for non-involved fans to enjoy from afar. Sometimes derided by English fans, it can offer a wonderful and rare glimpse into the less-travelled ecosystems of European football, especially with regards to the continents’ more obscure smaller sides.
Such is the scale of this leviathan, season-long tournament, and the format of its qualifying phase, 137 teams have already taken part in this year’s competition. This number will be whittled down to 48 after the Play-Off Round that begins this Thursday.
To help you find your footing and make sense of it all, we present the four picks of the latest round of qualifiers…
Stjarnan v Internazionale
Inter aren’t quite the glamorous outfit they once were, but their Icelandic opposition should make this an entertaining tie. Stjarnan FC became an Internet sensation when their choreographed goal celebrations hit Youtube a few seasons ago. Enjoying their first taste of European football this summer, they have already seen off Bangor City, Motherwell and Lech Poznan to get this far. While toppling Inter may be a bridge too far, Stjarnan will surely be hoping to bring their celebrations to a wider audience; a goal at the San Siro in the second leg would be quite something.
Aktobe v Legia Warsaw
After thrashing Celtic over two legs, Legia Warsaw were one game away from Champions League football. However, after it emerged they had fielded an ineligible player, their 2-0 away win was overturned and Celtic were offered a reprieve while Legia found themselves in the Europa League, with the double ignominy of a trip to Kazakhstan. Of course, should Legia win and Celtic lose their Champions League Play-Off against Maribor, the two could be drawn against each other in the Europa League proper. And how Henning Berg’s side would relish that.
AEL Limassol v Tottenham Hotspur
Although Mauricio Pochettino got off to a winning start with Spurs last weekend, the performance was far from convincing. This tie should give the manager an opportunity to try out some more of his squad. There may be a debut for Michael Vorm, signed as a backup to Hugo Lloris this summer, while Harry Kane, who got the assist for Eric Dier’s winner against West Ham, could be in line for a start. Spurs probably know better than anyone how enduring a Europa League campaign can be and Pochettino surely needs to add to squad and at the very least get last seasons’ duds firing (namely Erik Lamela, Roberto Soldado and Paulinho).
Karabükspor v Saint-Étienne
Historically, Saint-Etienne are a powerhouse of French football and will jump at the chance to return to European football. Usurped in recent years by nearby Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain and a resurgent Monaco, the club retains some of the most passionate supporters in France. Their squad includes some familiar players: Kévin Théophile-Catherine, who recently joined on loan from Cardiff, last year’s flop of the season Ricky van Wolfswinkel, on loan from Norwich and former Leicester and Leeds winger Max Gradel. Their Turkish opponents Karabükspor are unlikely competitors, finishing 7th in the League. However, they were offered a place after Sivasspor and Eskişehirspor were barred from this year’s tournament for involvement in a domestic match-fixing scandal.