Europa League preview, TV schedule and predictions

Schalke are not a prolific scoring team, but they are well experienced ,and despite the ups and downs of the summer, they have more talent than the other sides in this group. Schalke will progress, but likely through a good helping of 1-0 victories.

Czech champions Sparta Praha, or Železná Sparta (Iron Sparta) as they are nicknamed, should be the odds on favorites to progress along with Schalke. They had a tough draw in the third qualifying round for the Champions League and ultimately lost to CSKA Moscow by a single goal. The two legs were thrilling, and Sparta gave a great accounting of themselves. They then had another entertaining pair of matches against FC Thun of Switzerland in the Europa League playoff round. Sparta were up 3-1 from the home leg and drew 3-3 away to progress. It probably didn’t help that their back four was a bit unsettled by the transfer of Pavel Kaderábek to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim of the German Bundesliga. They look to have settled on Markus Steinhöfer who joined from VfR Aalen who were relegated from the German second division last season.

Sparta’s key man, captain David Lafata, was their leading scorer last season and looks to lead them again this year, even though he will turn 34 this week. He scored a staggering 13 goals in 11 European club games last season. Definitely one to watch out for.

APOEL were double winners last season, capturing the Cypriot First Division and Cypriot Cup honors. They did lose some key elements from last season’s squad – striker Rafik Djebbour (17 goals in 28 matches) jumped to AEK Athens and left back John Arne Riise left to play for Delhi Dynamos in the Indian Super League.

Fernando Cavenaghi has joined from Argentine club River Plate to try and provide goals. So far so good, as he’s scored three in two domestic matches. Cavenaghi has never had a great goal scoring record when he’s played in stronger leagues (Russia, France or Spain), so his impact in this adventure may be limited.

Asteras Tripolis FC finished third in the Greek Superleague last season, their highest finish ever. They also reached the finals of the Greek Cup and took Olympiacos to extra time before losing.

Like many of the smaller clubs in this competition, they lost their top scorer from last season during the summer transfer window when Jerónimo Barrales moved to Turkish club Sivasspor. With that loss of goals, they will struggle against the Schalke and Sparta in particular. Their European adventure will almost certainly end at the group stage this year.

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

APOEL vs. Schalke, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Asteras Tripolis vs. Sparta Praha, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

Schalke vs. Asteras, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Sparta Praha vs. APOEL, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Schalke vs. Sparta Praha, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
APOEL vs. Asteras, 1pm ET, ESPN 3 and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Sparta Praha vs. Schalke, 3pm ET, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Asteras vs. APOEL, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

Schalke vs. APOEL, 1pm ET, FOX Sports 2, and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Sparta Praha vs. Asteras, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

APOEL vs. Sparta Praha, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO
Asteras vs. Schalke, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO


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Group L

This is another tough group to predict. Let’s start by looking at Athletic Club de Bilbao (Spain). They lost to Italian club Torino in the Round of 32 last season after dropping into the competition from the Champions League. They finished their domestic campaign in seventh and had to go through Europa League qualifying to reach the group stage this year. They did just enough to defeat Slovak club MŠK Žilina in the playoffs and will need to improve their form if they hope to better last season’s results.

A rarity here — a club that kept their top scorer over the summer. Aritz Aduriz netted 18 times in 31 La Liga matches and is off to a decent start again this year. Having that continuity and reliable source of goals gives Bilbao an edge on the rest of the teams in their group. I look for them to finish first. We will then see if they can progress beyond the Round of 32.

AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands) finished third in the Eredivisie last year well behind both Ajax and PSV. Once again a top scorer is on the move, this time Nemanja Gudelj (11 league goals) was signed by Ajax for €6 million. If that was not enough, winger Steven Berghuis, who also had 11 goals, moved to Watford in the English Premier League and striker Aron Jóhannsson (nine goals) moved to Werder Bremen.

So far this season, attacking midfielder Markus Henriksen has been their lone consistent threat. If that trend continues, they could find themselves struggling to get results domestically and in the Europa League.

FC Augsburg are making their continental debut after a long climb through the lower divisions of German football. They achieved promotion to the 2. Bundesliga for 2006-07 season and began life in the top division in 2011-12. They jumped to a fifth place finish last year, one that no one saw coming. They achieved it largely on their home record, losing only four times in 17 matches. If they can make the most of their home atmosphere in this campaign, could another fairytale ending be achieved? They’ll need to draw on the experience of their forward Halil Altıntop (previously with Schalke from 2006-10) to keep heads calm.

The uphill battle for them is that they lack the sort of forward that can change a game for them. Last season’s top scorer, Raúl Bobadilla, only recorded 10 goals in 32 league matches.

To keep the theme going, Partizan Belgrade (Serbia) sold the contract of last season’s top scorer, Petar Skuletic, to Lokomotiv Moscow, and second leading scorer Danko Lazovic left on a free transfer for Chinese club Beijing Enterprises. However, they have made a signing that looks promising. The well traveled Valeri Bojinov (formerly of Manchester City, Fiorentina, Juventus and others) has signed on for the season and has already produced four goals in five appearances (360 minutes on the field). A product of their academy, center forward Ivan Šaponjić, has also had a hot start with three goals in four appearances.

I’m going to go with Partizan as the dark horse in this group. I think they could produce enough upset results to go on.

TV schedule:

Thursday, September 17:

Athletic Bilbao vs. Augsburg, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer Plus, and FOX Soccer 2GO.
Partizan vs. Alkmaar, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 1:

AZ Alkmaar vs. Athletic Bilbao, 1pm ET, ESPN Deportes (Spanish) and FOX Soccer 2GO (English)
Augsburg vs. Partizan, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, October 22

Alkmaar vs. Augsburg, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Partizan vs. Athletic, 1pm ET, ESPN Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 5

Augsburg vs. AZ Alkmaar, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Athletic vs. Partizan, 3pm ET, ESPN Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, November 26

AZ Alkmaar vs. Partizan, 1pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO.
Augsburg vs. Athletic, 1pm ET, ESPN Deportes and FOX Soccer 2GO.

Thursday, December 10

Partizan vs. Augsburg, 3pm ET, and FOX Soccer 2GO
Athletic vs. AZ Alkmaar, 3pm ET, FOX Soccer 2GO

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