The Europa League increasingly splits opinion. For some it is one of the most historic competitions in the world, a shot at major European silverware and an opportunity to qualify for the Champions League. For others it is a distraction, the bloated format making participation a gruelling prospect that is hardly worth the time and energy. Where a club stands on this issue tends to be dictated by their nationality.
Four of the last five Europa League champions – and nine of the last 15 - have been Spanish. Since 2009 the only non-Spanish victors have been Andre Villas-Boas at Porto (a particularly weak year in which they defeated Braga in the final) and Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Manchester United respectively, two coaches with a strong sense of the tournament’s tradition.
Fortunately for Arsenal fans, they have a Spaniard in charge that has won the Europa League three times, while Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri is expected to focus his efforts on success here as a route to the Champions League, now that there are six English sides competing for four Premier League spots. Consequently the tide could soon be turning in England. It’s high time English football takes the Europa League seriously.
Here’s a look at the betting odds for the four Europa League groups containing British teams, plus an early look at the outright winner market:
- Group B
Celtic have been handed an extremely tough set of fixtures for their first Europa League group stage under Brendan Rodgers, a manager that had previously achieved back-to-back qualifications for the Champions League. Group B contains a derby of sorts as Red Bull Salzburg take on RB Leipzig in a probable battle for top spot in the group, although it would be naive to rule Celtic out.
Despite falling to heavy defeats to the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich in the last two years Rodgers performed well away from Celtic Park against smaller opposition. Their 3-0 victory against Anderlecht last season suggests Celtic could be a threat, as do 1-1 draws at Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach in 2016/17.
RB Leipzig have made a poor start to the Bundesliga season, they lost Naby Keita and Bernardo over the summer, while Salzburg also sold key players following their semi-final appearance last campaign. With both clubs weaker, Celtic could sneak through.
- Group E
Arsenal reached the semi-final of the competition last year despite entering the first round of Europe’s secondary competition for the first time since 1997, and so this set of players will feel confident of at least repeating their 2017/18 showing. More importantly, they now have Unai Emery in charge, a man who won three consecutive Europa League titles as Sevilla manager; his high-pressing, quick counter-attacking football is perfect for European knock-out ties.
Sporting CP are their main rivals in Group E, and the Portuguese side have started the campaign well despite losing William Carvalho over the summer. Vorskla Poltava will be the whipping boys of the group, while Qarabag - a surprise entry in the Champions League last year – can only hope to grind out a few points.
Back Arsenal to win Group E (1.25)
- Group G
Steven Gerrard has a long and rich history playing in European competition, but his first managerial foray is unlikely to end particularly well. The first Old Firm derby of the season showed Celtic to be vastly superior to Rangers, a club that have sunk to a level incapable of competing in the Europa League. This will be their first appearance in the group stages since 2011.
In direct contrast Villarreal know this competition inside out and are clear favourites to top the group, while Spartak Moscow are in the middle of a resurgence at the moment. Their 5-1 victory over Sevilla in the Champions League last season wasn’t quite enough to get them to the second round, but the Russians are on the up – and are undefeated domestically so far this season.
Back Rangers to fail to qualify from Group G (1.30)
- Group L
Maurizio Sarri couldn’t get beyond the last 32 of the Europa League in two attempts at Napoli, instead focusing on the club’s league position as they attempted to challenge for the Serie A title. It is certainly possible he will take the same approach at Chelsea, with Champions League qualification a priority, but in the short term Sarri should still get them through an easy group.
BATE Borisov, PAOK, and MOL Vidi is about as simple as it gets. Chelsea won’t even have to shift out of second gear to top this group, and given Sarri has such a large squad the reserves are unlikely to let him down. However there's better value to be had for the runner up.
Back PAOK to qualify from Group L (2.25)
Given that eight Champions League teams will drop into the Europa League after the group stage it is difficult to predict the competition’s strength at this stage. However, there are a few notable favourites who will fancy their chances of going all the way.
AC Milan are on the up and keen to make an impression on the European stage, their capture of Gonzalo Higuain over the summer making the Rossoneri an attractive outside bet. Sevilla and Marseille are among the early front-runners primarily because of past success, the former winning it five times this century and the latter reaching the final in 2017/18, and consequently should be disregarded at this stage.
The best bet is Arsenal, who can build on a semi-final appearance last year and are managed by Emery, a three-time winner. What’s more, the Gunners probably won’t be challenging for the top four in the Premier League next spring, meaning they can focus their energy on the Europa League.
Back Arsenal win the Europa League (8.50)