Europa League preview, TV schedule and predictions

FC Groningen (Netherlands) embark on their first Europa League group stage campaign and face Marseille on Matchday 1. Could an upset result be on the cards? Well, Groningen lost some key components this summer, including attacking midfielder Tjaronn Chery, who joined Queens Park Rangers in England’s second division. Chery netted 15 times in 34 league matches. His goals could be replaced by new signing Jesper Drost. Drost is a 22-year-old attacking midfielder who has great skill and the ability to accelerate quickly with the ball at his feet. Definitely one to watch in this group.

In what is the recurring theme in this group, Braga (Portugal) also lost their top scorer from last season when Éder moved to English Premier League club Swansea City for an estimated £5 million fee. Braga have a replacement in Ahmed Hassan, who they signed from Rio Ave.

Braga qualified directly for the group stage based on last season’s fourth place finish. They’re a defensively solid team and that will continue to be their strength. I like their chances of progressing based on that.

FC Slovan Liberec (Czech Republic) have won all four of their European games this season, conceding just once in the process. Their defense was nowhere near that solid last season (43 goals conceded in 30 league matches), so it will be interesting to see how they hold up against sterner competition.

Liberec finished 12th in the Czech League and gained entry to the tournament via their winning the Czech Cup. They have made significant personnel changes in their backline (several players moved on, Ondrej Svedjik was brought in on loan from Sparta Prague, and the club made the permanent signing of goalkeeper Tomas Koubek, also from Sparta Prague).

Liberec made it through to the round of 32 in 2013-14, but I’m less convinced about their chances this season.

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Slovan Liberec vs. Braga, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Groningen vs. Marseille, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

Marseille vs. Slovan Liberec, 3pm ET, (Spanish) and FOX Soccer 2GO (English)
Braga vs. Groningen, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Braga vs. Marseille, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Liberec vs. Groningen, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Marseille vs. Braga, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Groningen vs. Liberec, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

Braga vs. Liberec, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Marseille vs. Groningen, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Liberec vs. Marseille, 1pm ET, and FOX Soccer 2GO
Groningen vs. Braga, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO


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Group G

FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (Ukraine) have redemption on their mind after being beaten by Sevilla in last season’s final. They have to be an early favorite in this group, having successfully made it through their previous three group stage campaigns. Yevhen Seleznov is deployed as a lone striker and is off to a hot start with five goals in seven domestic matches. Dnipro are usually tough for other teams to score against, and I would expect a similar approach this season, with 1-0 being a frequent scoreline. Dnipro will hope they are on the right side of that outcome more often than not.

As previously discussed in our Champions League playoff preview, Lazio (Italy) are largely an unchanged squad from last season. They relied on goals from a variety of sources without an out and out main threat. Miroslav Klose led the way with 16 in all competitions while Antonio Candreva, Felipe Anderson and Marco Parolo all reached double figures. A late summer signing has been the top goal-getter thus far this season. Alessandro Matri joined at the end of the transfer period on a loan deal from AC Milan and scored two goals in his debut in a 2–0 win over Udinese.

Overall, Lazio are off to a slow start, losing to Juventus in the Supercoppa Italiana, being soundly defeated by Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League playoffs and suffering a crushing 4-0 defeat away to Chievo in their second match of the Serie A campaign. Manager Stefano Pioli has a lot of work to do to get the side in more consistent form.

AS Saint-Étienne (France) finished fifth in Ligue 1 last season and defeated Romania club Târgu Mureș and Moldovian side Milsami to reach the group stage. I felt that Saint-Étienne had made a couple of really clever signings during the transfer season and could be a surprise performer in this group. I enjoyed watching Kévin Théophile-Catherine play for Cardiff City during their Premier League campaign. He added an attacking threat to the left side of the team while still defending well. Unfortunately, he broke a bone in his foot and will be out for up to three months. The other signing I liked was the addition of Robert Berić from Rapid Wien. Nolan Roux, a summer signing from Lille, has been playing as a No. 9 but has never been a prolific scorer. Ligue 1 is a step up in competition for Berić, but I think he’ll still produce goals given time to settle into the team.

Rosenborg (Norway) is one of two sides (Gabala FK the other) who have made it all the way from the first qualifying round to the group stage of this season’s competition. Along the way, the Norwegian champions have defeated some famous names – Romania’s FC Steaua Bucureşti and Hungary’s Debreceni VSC. The club is also leading the Tippeligaen
by a wide margin.

Rosenborg play with an attack minded 4-3-3 formation and forwards Alexander Søderlund and Pål André Helland have been scoring goals by the bucket load this season. Søderlund has tallied 25 goals in 32 total appearances in 2015 while Helland has 22 in 27. The third member of the front trio, Tobias Pilegaard Mikkelsen has chipped in 10 goals.

Rosenborg will hope this dominant form continues and gets them into the Round of 32, a place they have not been to since 2007-08.

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Dnipro vs. Lazio, 3pm ET, and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Saint Etienne vs. Rosenborg, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

Rosenborg vs. Dnipro, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Lazio vs. Saint Etienne, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Lazio vs. Rosenborg, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Dnipro vs. St. Etienne, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Rosenborg vs. Lazio, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
St. Etienne vs. Dnipro, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

Lazio vs. Dnipro, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Rosenborg vs. St. Etienne, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Dnipro vs. Rosenborg, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO
St Etienne vs. Lazio, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO


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Group H

My choice for top spot will be Beşiktaş JK. The Turkish club finished third in the Superlig last season and are off to a solid start again this campaign. They have also turned to some veterans for help, bringing in Ricardo Quaresma and Mario Gomez.

I do have a bit of personal bias, as I’m a fan of Canadian Atiba Hutchinson, one of our best players ever. He predominantly plays as a holding midfielder with Beşiktaş but in the past has also played on the right side of midfield or as a full back on either side of the pitch.

Beyond the familiar names are the real key components for Beşiktaş. Wingers Gökhan Töre and Olcay Şahan are the driving force in the squad and shone in last season’s Europa League campaign. Expect more dazzling wing play from the pair this time around.

Sporting Clube de Portugal had a busy offseason. Gone are the likes of Nani and Diego Capel, but what might hurt a bit more is the loss of young, talented defenders Cédric Soares and Naby Sarr. Joining the club are central defender Naldo (from Udinese), creative winger Bryan Ruiz (from Fulham) and a couple of veterans in right back João Pereira and central midfielder Alberto Aquilani. After narrowly missing out on advancing to the Champions League Round of 16 last season, Sporting will have a point to prove and should be able to advance out of this group.

Lokomotiv Moskva’s capture of the Russian Cup gave them direct entry to the Europa League group stage. Lokomotiv struggled for goals last season (41 goals in 37 total matches), but so far this campaign things have gone a bit differently. They are using the same 4-2-3-1 formation as last season but have changed personnel in the striker and trequarista positions. No one has established themselves as the dominant players in either role, but more goals are being produced. Striker Oumar Niasse has performed best in the early going with three goals in fiveappearances. Winger Alan Kasaev has already equalled his three league goals from last season. If Lokomotiv can continue to find goals then they will push Sporting for second.

Albanian club Klubi Futbollistik Skënderbeu Korçë are making their debut appearance at the group stage level of any UEFA competition. Not only is it Skënderbeu’s debut, it marks the first time an Albanian club has progressed to the group stage of a European competition. Their march to this point started back on July 14th in the Champions League second qualifying round. They lasted until the final hurdle, when they were simply outclassed by Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia). Based on what I saw in those two matches, I’m afraid that more of the same is the likely result for Bardhekuqtë (The White and Reds).

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