The UEFA Europa League is entering its knockout phase. Which teams have what it takes to reach Parc Olympique Lyonnais on May 16?
The Europa League is a notoriously difficult competition to predict, mostly because managers decide to rotate their regulars squads and give some of the younger players a chance to impress. That’s why I won’t be predicting who’s going to win the trophy, but rather which teams I consider the favorites to do so.
According to me, the team that should be considered the biggest favorite is Napoli. Maurizio Sarri, the coach who took Seria A by storm with Empoli, has created a beast in Napoli. Good fortune hasn’t been on its side, as the Italians have landed in Champions League’s toughest group for three consecutive years. That, however, has only made them stronger as a unit and hungrier for trophies. Nobody thought anyone will be able to challenge Juventus in Seria A, but Napoli is holding on to the №.1 spot and not letting go. Led by the extraordinary Belgian Dries Mertens, Napoli is an opponent everyone should fear. Including RB Leipzig on Thursday.
The next two teams I would add to the circle of favorites are Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. The Spaniards won the competition under Simeone in 2012, lost two Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016, and have proven over and over again to be extremely difficult to eliminate over two legs. Even in a season in which they failed to advance from the group in the CL and are having troubles scoring, they are just seven points behind undefeated Barcelona in Spain. Griezmann and his teammates will be a tough out. The same can be said about Dortmund, only from an opposite perspective. The Germans can outscore any adversary. All the drama surrounding Dembele and Aubameyang, along with non-stop injuries, have all had their influence over the current state of the club. With Reus back, and Batshuayi proving to be a bargain, Dortmund’s best is yet to come.
As much as I don’t trust Arsenal, I do believe Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan will have a positive influence on the club, and can help them finally accomplish something meaningful. The former Dortmund players bring an aspect to the game the club has been lacking over the past few years.
That rounds up the four main favorites. The second tier includes teams such as: Sporting Lisbon, Marseille and Lokomotiv Moscow. These are clubs that are near the top (or in Lokomotiv Moscow’s case at the top) of their respective national leagues and have been in excellent form lately. They all have tough tasks going into Thursday’s first legs, though. Sporting has had to travel all the way to Kazakhstan, where it will face Astana, Marseille takes on the always undervalued Braga, whereas Lokomotiv Moscow will need to overcome Balotelli’s Nice. The winner of Lyon – Villarreal could also be a threat to go a long way. However, the semi-finals is the furthest I can see them playing.
That concludes the list. As you can see, I have left AC Milan out. That is because I have no confidence whatsoever that it has what it takes to reach the later stages of the competition. We’ll see whether I was right or wrong.