The Europa League continues to improve season on season and clubs are finally realising, why has it taken so long, that winning takes them into the Champions League, just ask Chelsea.
Looking at the list of teams is virtually a `Who’s who` of European football royalty; Manchester United, Sporting Lisbon, Roma, Seveilla, Porto, Feyenord, Arsenal. Any one of those teams are capable of lifting the trophy in Gdansk next year.
Serial winners Sevilla boosted their already good prospects by securing one of the best strikers ever to ply his trade in the Premier League, Javier Hernandez. `Little Pea` even took a hefty pay cut to leave West Ham, no surprise there, for La Liga and a tilt at European glory.
Any one of the other three sides could accompany Seville into the next phase. Qarabag were the first Azerbaijani team to advance to the Group stage of UCL in 2017-18 and their chances improved dramatically with the loan signing of Asmir Begovic.
Apoel and Luxembourg outfit Dudelange complete the group and the latter continues to improve being the first Luxembourg side to reach the group stage of a European competition.
Sevilla and Qarabag to progress
Dynamo Kiev and FC Copenhagen are favourites to go through but FC Malmo have vast European experience and showed their quality last season when they lost to eventual winners Chelsea. Two from these three are favourites to go through while Lugano should prop up the group.
Kiev and Copenhagen to top group
Basel is one of the most experienced side in this season`s Europa League and this will be their 20th consecutive season in Europe so they can rightfully be considered favourites to lift the trophy. They reached the last 16 in 2017-18.
Krasnodar only played a first Europa League game as recently as 2014 and the following campaign they beat Borussia Dortmund. An overall win rate of 52%, 24 out of 46, means the Russian club are a decent outfit in the Europa League.
Getafe have had a very poor start to the season and at the time of the draw were still winless so struggling to match last season`s 5th place finish which earned their Europa League place. They may struggle in this group also.
Trabzonspor`s best performance in Europe was to reach the Group stages of the Champions` League as recently as 2012 but they are unlikely to improve on that with Europa League success this time around.
Basel and Krasnodar to qualify
This is a very good group and any one of ; Sporting, PSV Eindhoven and Rosenborg are more than capable of reaching the last four.
Sporting finished 3rd in their league last seasons but still well short of the Big Two, Benfica and Porto. Much will be expected of loan strike trio;
Yannick Bolase, from Everton, Fernando, from Shakhtar and Jese on loan from PSG.
PSV pushed Ajax all the way last season in the Eredivisie to finish runners-up by just three points. They score goals and have a fine defence so I think they are a good shout to win the competition.
Rosenborg are the most experienced Norwegian side in European competition having played the most UEFA games. The side currently sits 10 points behind league leaders Mold, in 4th place so may well see this competition as their best hope for success.
Lask from Austria finished runners-up in the Austrian League last season, their best ever showing but will probably finish fourth in the group.
I’m going for PSV and Sporting
I think Lazio and Rennes are two of the best teams in the Europa League and as such should qualify.
Lazio squeezed into the competition from eighth place in Serie A last season so will need to improve if they are to keep Celtic at bay who may just sense Lazio are there for the taking. BUT, and its in caps because in Ciro Immobile Lazio have one of the most sought after strikers in Europe.
His career tally, and he is still only 29, is 166 goals in 330 games, the perfect striker ratio of a goal every two games. Celtic and Rennes beware.
As far as Rennes is concerned anyone who thinks they will roll over, for anyone, just has to refer to the Ligue 1 table where they are neck and neck with moneybags PSG. It helps underline that they are no flash in the pan because last season they played newly crowned league champions PSG in the Final of the French Cup. Rennes went 2 goals down but rallied and eventually thwarted PSG`s `Double` hopes with a 6-5 penalty shoot-out win.
Celtic will need to take something from Rennes and Lazio if they are to have any hope of going through.
CFR Cluj of Romania are out of their depth and should finish fourth
Lazio and Rennes to top the group
Arsenal`s front two can fire them all the way to the Final. Unfortunately no such optimism exists, outside the Emirates for their midfield and defence. Character seems to be growing within the camp but it needs to be more obvious out on the pitch. This is a tough group where any of the other three sides could spoil Arsenal hopes of progress even at this group stage.
Eintracht Franfurt are a typically well drilled German side but which isn`t pulling up any trees in the Bundesliga while Standard Liege top the Belgian League but even there despite winning four of their opening games they lost two so consistency is not a byword there.
Vitoria Setubal are an established top-flight side in Portugal but with limited silverware since they returned to the top-flight 14 years ago, limited to cups, the last of which was 14 years ago.
Arsenal and Standard Liege to qualify
Porto and Feyenoord are the two best teams in this group. Porto vie with Benfica every season for their domestic league, last season they fell just two points short at the top of the table. Feyenoord were third behind PSV and Ajax but never the less are a decent side on their day. And its only been a couple of years since they ended an 18 year wait for the Eredivisie title so they are rightly considered among the favourites for the Europa League.
Young Boys, Berne are one of the most successful side in Swiss football but less so on the European stage. In April last year they claimed their first league title for 32 years and four months later, August 2018, they defeated Dinamo Zagreb in a play-off to reach the UCL Group Stage for the first time in the club`s history.
Rangers are still playing catch-up on the European stage and may well struggle to get out of this group. An outside chance of being one of the best third-place teams.
Porto and Feyenoord to head the group.
CSKA Moscow seem to be struggling to match city rivals Lokomotiv for bragging rights in the Russian capital so a decent showing in the Europa Cup might help. They won this competition back in 2005 and have an impressive 52% win rate in the 57 matches they have played, winning 30.
Espanyol are a club that has to punch above its weight just to keep up with much bigger clubs in la Liga and its to their credit when qualify for European football which they have this season by finishing seventh last.
Espanyol could find themselves competing for second place with Ludogorets who have won their domestic Bulgarian League for the last eight seasons.
Ferencvaros, current Hungarian League champions could be one to watch if they can get a couple of decent results against Espanyol and Ludogorets.
CSKA and Ludogorets to qualify, Ferencvaros as one of the best third place teams.
Gent are probably favourites to win this group and maybe even the trophy itself after a good showing in the Belgian league last season before imploding in the play-offs.
Wolfsburg are another well-organised German side, are there any other kind. They had a good showing in the UCL three years ago when they reached the quarter-final where they were eliminated by Real Madrid. A couple of poor seasons followed in the Bundesliga and they only stayed in the top-flight, in 2017, when they won their play off game against Holstein Kiel, 4-1. The team grabbed its reprieve with all they had and finished a creditable 6th in the table to qualify for this Europa League campaign. Swiss international Admir Mehmedi joined the club in 2018 for 8 million euros so he will be one to watch.
Yohan Cabaye and Mathieu Debuchy are the best known players in the St Etienne side that finished fourth last season though they are languishing in 16th after a poor start to the current campaign.
Olexandriya from Ukraine have only ever played six games in the Europa League and lost 3, drew two and won just one. They are unlikely to improve on that record this time around.
Gent and Wolfsburg to head the group
Roma snagged Henrikh Mkhitaryan on loan from Arsenal to supplement an already impressive squad. He joins fellow Premier League exile Chris Smalling and a young man with one of the most famous surnames in European football, Justin Kluivert. Roma had a good season in Serie A last time out and are rightly considered one of the favourites to win the Europa League.
Borussia Monchengladbach are also likely to progress though their league inconsistency must be a worry as they re just as likely to lose a game as win one, they don`t really do draws.
Basaksehir from Istanbul reached the play-off round of the UCL in 2017-18 and last season they lost out in the Turkish title race by just two points to Galatasaray so they are likely to push Borussia hard for second place, But they would be happy as one of the best third place sides.
Another Wolfsberg, this time from Austria, makes up the group and that is likely how they will finish. But you have to be impressed with their progress as a club. Having played for decades in the lower leagues of Austrian football the club, just seven years ago, 2012, won promotion to the top flight for the first time in their history. First season in and they finished fifth and improved again last season to finish third and qualify for only a second European campaign.
Wolves are my outside tip for a good run in the Europa League and should reach the next stage despite drawing a tough group.
Besiktas have played the last 18 seasons in Europe and reached the last 16 of the Europa League in 2012 and 2015 before reaching the quarter-finals in 2017. They are Wolves` biggest threat but should qualify with them.
Slovan Bratislava are perennial qualifiers for Europe but don`t seem to be able to trouble the latter stages and shouldn`t really trouble Wolves or Besiktas.
Braga, like Bratislava, are regular European participants and reached the Final of this competition in 2011, a year after qualifying for the UCL for the first time ever. In 2013 they then reached the group stage.
Wolves and Besiktas to top the group but Braga could have a big say
Manchester United will be expected to win this competition let alone this group though that expectation may not be shared outside the confines of Old Trafford. A young side in the process of rebuilding on so many fronts may have to regard this season as part of the learning curve. That said the hunger and fearlessness of youth may surprise onlookers, fans and pundits alike. Can`t wait to see how the other teams in this group cope with Daniel James who has taken United and the Premier League by storm. Ryan Giggs with pace and a goal threat is my view.
Partizan Belgrade may be United`s biggest threat to top the group. They finished 3rd in their league last season and made an unbeaten start to the current domestic campaign.
While the make up of the group should not trouble United their biggest problem will be the 7,400 mile round trip for the away game against Astana of Kazakhstan.
AZ Almaar is a less daunting trip and despite a creditable 4th place finish last season in Eredivisie they should hold no fears for Manchester United.
United and Partizan to lead the group
By Brian Beard