Europa League preview, TV schedule and predictions

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Sporting vs. Lokomotiv Moscow, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Skenderbeu vs. Besiktas, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

Besiktas vs. Sporting, 1pm ET, ESPN3.com (Spanish) and FOX Soccer 2GO (English)
Lokomotiv Moscow vs. Skenderbeu, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Lokomotiv Moscow vs. Besiktas, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Sporting vs. Skenderbeu, 1pm ET, ESPN 3 and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Besiktas vs. Lokomotiv Moscow, 11am ET, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Skenderbeu vs. Sporting, 3pm ET, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

Lokomotiv Moscow vs. Sporting, 1pm ET, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Besiktas vs. Skenderbeu, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Sporting vs. Besiktas, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 2, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO
Skenderbeu vs. Lokomotiv Moscow, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO

 

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Group I

Basel (Switzerland) would love to reach the final this season, as it is being played in their home stadium. First things first though, Basel will feel some confidence in this grouping having already overcome the Lech Poznań 4-1 on aggregate in this season’s UEFA Champions League third qualifying round. In case that didn’t provide enough headlines, Basel also face their ex-manager Paulo Sousa, who is now the Fiorentina boss. With their wealth of European experience and current form (they are undefeated in eight domestic league matches with a +15 goal difference), I’m picking Basel as the winner of this group.

Fiorentina (Italy) are another club with redemption on their minds. On their run to the semifinals last season, the Viola defeated Tottenham and Roma before they lost to eventual winners Sevilla. Gone are Mario Gómez (on loan to Beşiktaş), winger Mohamed Salah (loan from Chelsea ended), and midfielders Joaquín, Alberto Aquilani, Juan Manuel Vargas and David Pizarro. As the transfer period was coming to a close, Fiorentina brought in Jakub Błaszczykowski on loan from Borussia Dortmund to try and replace the speed and wing play that Salah had contributed last campaign. The club is also hoping that a fit Giuseppe Rossi will translate into a steady supply of goals. After two major knee injuries have cost him two seasons, can he hold up? Let’s hope so, as his goal scoring rate with Fiorentina has been good (17 in 26 appearances). Fiorentina and Basel should be able to advance from this group thanks to drawing some weaker opposition.

Polish champions Lech Poznań, nicknamed Kolejorz or The Railwayman, are back in the group stage for the first time since the 2010-11 season. They were knocked out at the third round of qualifying in three consecutive seasons. This year’s path was a little different as they lost to Basel in the third round of Champions League qualifying before defeating Hungarian side Videoton in the Europa League playoff round.

Their talisman is Finnish attacking midfielder Kasper Hämäläinen, who lead the way with 15 goals and eight assists in all competitions last season. They’ve added center forward Denis Thomalla from German second division club Rasenballsport Leipzig. Thomalla spent last season on loan in the Austrian Bundesliga with SV Reid where he scored 10 goals and added seven assists in 29 matches. Despite that, I don’t see them being able to take any points off the top two clubs in the group.

Belenenses (Portugal) are the likely last place finishers in this group. They finished sixth in the Primeira Liga. No matter the outcome, Belenenses will be proud of making their UEFA group stage debut. This will be the longest campaign in their European history (at least 10 games). Their longest previous outing was a four-game trip to the 1988-89 UEFA Cup second round. Belenenses will not be simple to beat but I feel their cautious approach and lack of goals (no player reached double digits last season) will be their ultimate undoing.

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Fiorentina vs. FC Basel, 3pm ET, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Lech Poznan vs. Belenenses, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

Belenenses vs. Fiorentina, 1pm ET, ESPN3.com (Spanish) and FOX Soccer 2GO (English)
FC Basel vs. Lech Poznan, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Fiorentina vs. Lech Poznan, 1pm ET, ESPN 3 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Basel vs. Belenenses, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Belenenses vs. FC Basel, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Lech Poznan vs. Fiorentina, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

FC Basel vs. Fiorentina, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Belenenses vs. Lech Poznan, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Fiorentina vs. Belenenses, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO
Lech Poznan vs. FC Basel, 3pm ET, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO

 

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Group J

Tottenham Hotspur crashed out in the Round of 32 last season and will look to go much further this time around. The overhaul of the squad continued this offseason with more departures than arrivals. The big summer signings were forward Heung-Min Son (£22 million from Bayer Leverkusen) and central defender Toby Alderweireld (£11.5 million from Atlético Madrid). They should be improvements on the players in those positions that have departed — Vlad Chiricheș and Roberto Soldado. The team is built around English striker Harry Kane and so far he’s not found the scoresheet. Spurs will need to find some goals from Kane and others if they are to progress.

Anderlecht finished third in the Belgian league last season, which granted them automatic entry to the Europa League group stage. The player to watch is 18-year-old Youri Tielemans, the youngest Belgian player to play in the UEFA Champions League, making his debut in 2013 when he was just 16 years old. He’s off to a hot start this season with three goals and an assist in six domestic matches.

Of worry for Anderlecht is that they have won only one of their last eight European home games. I don’t see their fortunes changing anytime soon as they face Monaco on Matchday 1 and their record against French clubs is quite poor — they are without a win in their last five encounters with Ligue 1 sides.

Monaco (France) missed out on the Champions League group stage after being defeated by Valencia. The big sale was Anthony Martial to Manchester United for a reported initial fee of £36 million in a deal that could net the club as much as £58m, including the percentages Martial’s former clubs Lyon and CO Les Ulis will claim. However, Monaco also attracted some top players on loan — defender Fábio Coentrão from Real Madrid and Stephan El Shaarawy from AC Milan.

Shaarawy is a particularly interesting prospect. He’s been hampered by injuries the past couple of seasons but has pace, agility, dribbling ability, and technical skill to be a star player. If he can stay healthy, Shaarawy could add the creative spark that Monaco is lacking at the moment. I see them battling for second place in the group with Anderlecht.

Azerbaijani champions Qarabağ Futbol Klubu are the the second team from their nation to advance to the group stage of a European competition. They missed out on the Champions League, losing to Red Bull Salzburg in the third qualifying round. They have struggled every season as they face bigger and more experienced clubs, and I don’t see that trend reversing. Even domestically they did not have a dominant goal scorer, and that will not help them get results in this competition.

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Qarabag, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Anderlecht vs. Monaco, 3pm ET, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

AS Monaco vs. Spurs, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 1, ESPN3 (Spanish) and FOX Soccer 2GO (English)
Qarabag vs. Anderlecht, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Monaco vs. Qarabag, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Anderlecht vs. Spurs, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Qarabag vs. Monaco, 11am ET, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Tottenham vs. Anderlecht, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 1, ESPN3.com and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

Monaco vs. Anderlecht, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Qarabag vs. Spurs, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Anderlecht vs. Qarabag, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO
Spurs vs. Monaco, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 1, ESPN Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO

 

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Group K

Schalke (Germany) automatically qualified for the group stage because of their sixth place finish in the Bundesliga last season. They had a strong run in last season’s Champions League and narrowly lost to Real Madrid by a 5-4 aggregate in the Round of 16.

All’s not rosy, though, as midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng remains suspended by the club for incidents back in May of this year. Forward Sidney Sam was also on the outside looking in but the transfer of Jefferson Farfan to Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates gave him an opportunity to rejoin the squad. Star winger Julian Draxler has also been sold to Wolfsburg for €36 million.

In response Schalke have added more depth in the defensive end with the signings of holding midfielder Johannes Geis from Mainz and central defender Matija Nastasić from Manchester City. Argentine Franco Di Santo was added from Werder Bremen, but I don’t see that resulting in a large upswing in goals.

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