Europa League preview, TV schedule and predictions

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UEFA’s ‘other’ competition, the Europa League, begins on Thursday, with 48 teams starting their journeys toward spring final in Basel, where one club will earn a berth in the 2016-17 Champions League.

Here is World Soccer Talk’s preview:

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Group A

The groupings start off with what could be the toughest of the lot: Ajax (Netherlands), Celtic (Scotland), Fenerbahçe (Turkey) and Molde (Norway). Ajax and Celtic shifted into this competition after UEFA Champions League playoff round defeats. Their rivals entered after third qualifying round losses – Fenerbahçe lost out to Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine); Molde to Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia).

Ajax have made it through to the round of 32 in all three of their previous UEFA Cup and Europa League group stage campaigns. I see that trend continuing this season. Ajax have long had one of the best academies in Europe, and a recent product to keep your eye on is midfielder Davy Klaassen. Klaassen replaces the departed Niklas Moisander (transfer to Fiorentina) as club captain. Another academy product leading the scoring charts is winger Anwar El Ghazi. El Ghazi spent time in the youth academy of Feyenoord and Sparta Rotterdam before going to “finishing school” at Ajax. He’s started the domestic season on a tear, scoring six times in five matches.

Fenerbahçe had a busy summer in the transfer market, signing former Manchester United players Robin van Persie and Nani. It will be hoped that van Persie can replace the goals of the departed Moussa Sow (transfer to Dubai side Al-Ahli). With that added experience and firepower, not to mention the intimidating home atmosphere, Fenerbahçe are the team to beat in this group.

Celtic will have to find a way to improve both their set piece defending and their ability to close out games once if they hope to progress. Compounding their issues is the loss of center back Virgil van Dijk (transfer deadline day move to Southampton). Manchester United prospect Tyler Blackett arrived on a season-long loan, and having put in some impressive performances last season, Celtic will be optimistic that he can replace van Dijk.

Molde are struggling this season after winning the Tippeligaen in 2014. Manager Tor Ole Skullerud was fired after the club lost in the third round of Champions League qualifying. They are well off the pace domestically, trailing leaders Rosenborg by 21 points. Despite the struggles, Molde still possess some capable attackers in Mohamed Elyounoussi, Ola Kamara and Tommy Høiland. Being in late season form could help.

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Fenerbahce vs. Molde, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Ajax vs. Celtic, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer Plus, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

Celtic vs. Fenerbahce, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Molde vs. Ajax, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Molde vs. Celtic, 3pm ET, ESPN 3 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Fenerbahce vs. Ajax, 3pm ET, ESPN 3 and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Ajax vs. Fenerbahce, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Celtic vs. Molde, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

Celtic vs. Ajax, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Molde vs. Fenerbahce, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Fenerbahce vs. Celtic, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO
Ajax vs. Molde, 1pm ET, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO

 

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Group B

Liverpool (England) will be the favorites to finish top and can be thankful for a favorable draw as the Reds are still a work in progress. They have attempted to strengthen their squad with the summer signings of James Milner, Danny Ings, Christian Benteke, Nathaniel Clyne and Roberto Firmino. However, they sold Raheem Sterling to Manchester City, and so far the goals have dried up for Liverpool. They started the domestic campaign with a pair of 1-0 wins, but their form has dropped dramatically since. Back to back losses have raised many questions about the defensive, as well. In both losses they conceded three goals, and the central pairing of Lovren and Skrtel have not covered themselves in glory.

FC Girondins de Bordeaux (France) have a poor record against English clubs — one win and two draws in 10 game — so they will hope for a change in fortunes against Liverpool on Matchday 1. Bordeaux finished sixth in Ligue 1 last season and currently sit 10th after five matches.

Their main attacking threat is midfielder Wahbi Khazri, a former France under-21 international who now plays for Tunisia at the international level. Khazri has started the domestic campaign with three goals in five matches and also scored in their playoff round first leg against FC Kairat Almaty (Kazakhstan). Bordeaux just held Paris Saint-Germain to a 2-2 draw, and if they continue to play in that manner, they’ll grab a spot in the Round of 32 ahead of Rubin Kazan and Sion.

FC Rubin Kazan (Russia) have successfully navigated their way through to the round of 32 in all three of their previous Europa League group stage appearances. However, they only entered into the Europa League this season because Dynamo Moscow failed to comply with UEFA’s financial fair play rules. They currently sit 12th in the Russian Premier League and have been held scoreless in four of their eight matches. Their main threat for goals is forward Igor Portnyagin.

FC Sion (Switzerland) are making their Europa League group stage debut, having qualified by winning the Swiss Cup. They finished seventh in the Swiss League last season and currently sit fifth this campaign. The player to watch for Sion is Pape Moussa Konaté, a Senegalese striker who currently has four goals in six domestic matches. I wouldn’t expect Sion to advance from this group, and they are likely to struggle against the quartet’s more experienced clubs.

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Bordeaux vs. Liverpool, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 1, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.
FC Sion vs. Rubin Kazan, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

Liverpool vs. FC Sion, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 1, ESPN3.com (Spanish) and FOX Soccer 2GO (English)
Rubin Kazan vs. Bordeaux, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Liverpool vs. Rubin Kazan, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 1, ESPN 3 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Bordeaux vs. Sion, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Rubin Kazan vs. Liverpool, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 1, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Sion vs. Bordeaux, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

Rubin Kazan vs. Sion, 11am ET, FOX Sports 2, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Liverpool vs. Bordeaux, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 1, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Bordeaux vs. Rubin Kazan, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO
Sion vs. Liverpool, 1pm ET, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO

 

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Group C

First place in the group should be Borussia Dortmund’s (Germany) to lose. The club still has many veterans of their Champions League quarterfinal run from 2013-14. Top players such as Mats Hummels, Marco Reus and Nuri Şahin give Dortmund a depth that other clubs in the group cannot match. Over the summer they added a mix of veterans like midfielder Gonzalo Castro (€11 million transfer from Bayer Leverkusen) as well as exciting young talent like Adnan Januzaj, who is on a season-long loan from Manchester United. Gone are forwards Kevin Großkreutz and Ciro Immobile, but the impact of their loss should be minimal.

Dortmund’s opposition in the group includes Greek side PAOK, who finished third in the Superleague last season. Their main attacking threats are Greek international Stefanos Athanasiadis and Slovak winger Róbert Mak, who paced them in qualifying with three goals. Last season’s joint top scorer, Facundo Pereyra, was shipped out by sporting director Frank Arnesen. You might recall the name from his time with Tottenham, Chelsea and Hamburger SV. Arnesen brought in Dimitar Berbatov on deadline day to help bolster the attack.

PAOK face Azerbaijani side Qäbäla FK, who signed Pereyra on loan. Qäbäla (often written as Gabala FK) have reason to be proud, having made it all the way from the first qualifying round to group stage. They knocked off some bigger sides on their way through, being well organized and maintaining a compact team shape at home (no goals conceded in four home games). Goals are an issue for this side, and they’ve struggled in away matches during qualifying. Unless there is a change in form, they will be facing an early exit.

FC Krasnodar (Russia) entered the Europa League at the third-qualifying round and defeated Slovan Bratislava on aggregate, 5-3. A true United Nations squad with 11 different nations represented, Krasnodar were founded just seven years ago and have now reached the group stage in consecutive seasons. To reach this level already is an amazing accomplishment for the ownership and current manager Oleg Kononov.

Some would say they’re doing it in the right way, as owner Sergey Galitsky has stated that rather than continue to buy players, the aim in the next few years is for more than half of FC Krasnodar first team to comprised of players developed by their extensive academy network. FC Krasnodar runs a network of youth football schools throughout the Krasnodar Krai and Adyghe regions. They finished third in their group last season, and I’m picking them to go one better this time and qualify for the Round of 32.

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