Europa League preview, TV schedule and predictions

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Borussia Dortmund vs. FC Krasnodar, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 2, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Gabala vs. PAOK, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

PAOK vs. Borussia Dortmund, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Krasnodar vs. Gabala, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Gabala vs. Dortmund, 11am ET, FOX Sports 1, ESPN 3 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
PAOK vs. Krasnodar, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Krasnodar vs. PAOK, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Dortmund vs. Gabala, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 2, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

Krasnodar vs. Borussia Dortmund, 11am ET, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
PAOK vs. Gabala, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Gabala vs. Krasnodar, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO
Borussia Dortmund vs. PAOK, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer 2GO

 

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Group D

This could well be the dreaded “Group of Death” that every cup competition seems to provide.

Club Brugge (Belgium) will hope to put aside the heavy defeat in Champions League playoffs against Manchester United (7-1 on aggregate). Brugge made it to the quarterfinals of last season’s Europa League but are drawn into a tricky group this time around.

What I learned by watching Brugge against Manchester United was that they have players that can create chances. I was aware of Victor Vazquez, the former Barcelona academy player, before the playoffs, but the two legs against the Red Devils brought forward Tuur Dierckx to my attention. Playing out on the left, he was eager to attack defenders and sent a few good looking crosses into the penalty area. If they can have a bit more solidity at the back (they’ve conceded eight times in seven domestic matches), their chances of progressing will improve.

Napoli (Italy) are off to a slow start in Serie A with only two points from three matches. There’s been no major change in the squad (Gökhan Inler was the only departure), but there has been a change in managers. Rafa Benitez left to take over at Real Madrid and Maurizio Sarri was hired to lead Napoli.

Sarri has bounced around several Italian clubs but is best known for his recent work with Empoli. He managed them to promotion from Serie B in 2013-14 and against the odds kept them in Serie A with a 15th place finish last season. If the wins don’t start rolling in, Sarri will quickly find himself under pressure. This squad has the talent to progress to the Round of 32 but must show a more complete game to advance.

One might be tempted to overlook Legia Warszawa (Poland) in this group, but they have made it to the round of 32 in two of their three UEFA Cup and Europa League group stage campaigns. More relevantly, Legia are in great form, having won all six of their qualifying games to make it to the group stage.

FC Midtjylland (Denmark) are a club that I got interested in at the start of last season. Matthew Benham (owner of English Championship side Brentford) saw value in a club that was knocking on the door of European cup competitions for several seasons. He became the majority shareholder of FC Midtjylland and they went on to win their first major trophy — the Danish Championship.

Benham has instilled a data-driven approach to ­developing players based on the ‘Moneyball’ methods introduced by the Oakland Athletics baseball club in the 1990s. Much like FC Krasnodar, they are rejecting the big money deals of the transfer market and are continuing the good work started by their academy in 2004. That’s not to say they don’t spend, just carefully. An example would be their €1 million deal for striker Martin Pušić in last season’s winter transfer window. He went on to score eight times in 16 matches and helped them to secure their first title.

This group seems impossible to predict, so a prediction is obviously in order. I’m going to go with Midtjylland and Legia Warszawa strictly based on current form.

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Midtjylland vs. Legia Warsaw, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Napoli vs. Brugge, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

Legia Warsaw vs. Napoli, 3pm ET, ESPN3.com (Spanish) and FOX Soccer 2GO (English)
Brugge vs. Midtjylland, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Legia vs. Brugge, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Midtjylland vs. Brugge, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Napoli vs. Midtjylland, 1pm ET, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Brugge vs. Legia Warsaw, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

Legia Warsaw vs. Midtjylland, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Brugge vs. Napoli, 3pm ET, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Midtjylland vs. Brugge, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO
Napoli vs. Legia Warsaw, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO

 

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Group E

Czech league champions FC Viktoria Plzeň should be considered favorites to progress. They lost in the third round of Champions League qualifying to Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel) but breezed past Serbian side Vojvodina in the Europa League playoff round (5-0 on aggregate).

Plzeň successfully navigated their way through their only previous Europa League group stage in 2012-13. The squad is largely comprised of Czech or Slovak born players except for top scorer Aidin Mahmutović. The Bosnian striker led the team with 12 goals last season. However, a new threat is emerging in Slovak forward Michal Ďuriš, who is the leading scorer this season with four goals in six domestic matches.

Villarreal (Spain) finished sixth in La Liga and gained automatic entry to the group stage. Goals were in short supply last season, when the Spanish club finished with a mere 48 goals in 38 games but only conceded 37. They’ve attempted to add some spark by signing Congo international Cédric Bakambu, who scored 21 times in 35 games for Turkish club Bursaspor. He’s already paying off, having scored three times in his first two appearances for the club. Another big signing that’s off to a flying start is Roberto Soldado who joined from Tottenham for a reported £10 million (less than half what Tottenham paid for him in the summer of 2013). Soldado has two goals and two assists in three matches. With this new attacking verve, I like Villareal’s chances of advancing.

Rapid Wien finished second in the Austrian Bundesliga last campaign and find themselves again second so far this term. They are without striker Robert Berić, last season’s top scorer with 27 goals, who has moved to French club Saint-Étienne. Since his departure, the goals have largely been coming from midfield, with Austrian under-21 Florian Kainz and Germans Louis Schaub and Steffen Hofmann leading the way. But results have started to slip since Berić departed, and unless either Deni Alar or Matej Jelić emerge as a consistent threat, their chances to progress are shaky.

Dinamo Minsk (Belarus) needed extra time against FC Zurich (Switzerland) in the third qualifying round and went to a penalty shootout to defeat Red Bull Salzburg (Austria) in the playoffs. There’s no such outlet for them in the group stage, so they will need to improve on their ability to close out matches. In both cases, they led after the first leg and simply could not hang onto their lead.

Goal production has been coming from Serbian winger Nenad Adamović (six league goals) and Montenegrin striker Fatos Bećiraj (eight league goals). Bećiraj also scored the extra-time winner over Zürich.

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Rapid Vienna vs. Villarreal, 1pm ET, ESPN Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Viktoria Plzen vs. Dinamo Minsk, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

Villarreal vs. Viktoria Plzen, 3pm ET, ESPN Deportes (Spanish) and FOX Soccer 2GO (English)
Dinamo Minsk vs. Rapid Vienna, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Villarreal vs. Dinamo Minsk, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 2, ESPN Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Rapid Vienna vs. Plzen, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Dinamo Minsk vs. Villarreal, 1pm ET, ESPN Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Plzen vs. Rapid Vienna, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

Dinamo Minsk vs. Plzen, 11am ET, FOX Soccer 2GO
Villarreal vs. Rapid Vienna, 3pm ET, ESPN Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Rapid Vienna vs. Dinamo Minsk, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO
Plzen vs. Villarreal, 1pm ET, ESPN Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO

 

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Group F

It’s been a summer of change at Olympique de Marseille (France), with forwards André Ayew (10 league goals) and André-Pierre Gignac (21 league goals), playmaker Dimitri Payet (17 assists in 36 league appearances) and midfielder Florian Thauvin (5 goals, 8 assists) all departing. Gignac’s 21 Ligue 1 goals put him second in the league. Marseille has dipped into the loan market to try and bolster the squad. Mauricio Isla has joined from Juventus, Remy Cabella from Newcastle United and young talents Javier Manquillo and Lucas Silva have joined from Atletico and Real Madrid, respectively.

Former Real Madrid midfielder Míchel has a big job on his hands getting the squad to gel. So far, the results have not been going there way, and they sit mid-table. Marseille were shut out in three of their first five games, a trend that has to reverse if they want to progress.

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