By Brian Beard | 27th FEB 2021
Well the UEFA Europa League Round of Sixteen draw at least makes it easy to decide on my intro with the headline Manchester United v AC Milan pairing which throws together the two teams I was going to select as my favourites to win the trophy. Does anyone else think that the draw could almost be a UCL draw such is the quality of sides left in the competition?
Ajax v BSC Young Boys
Dynamo Kiev v Villarreal
As Roma v Shakhtar Donetsk
Olympiakos v Arsenal
Dinamo Zagreb v Tottenham
Manchester United v AC Milan
Slavia Prague v Rangers
Granada v Molde
Manchester United v AC Milan
They don`t come any more heavyweight than a clash between seven-times winners of the UCL and another European power that has won it three times so the broadcasters will be licking their collective lips as much as the millions of onlookers who will want to see if United can cope with their former striker, `Zlat the Terrible` or will Rashford and co outplay their former team mate.
Before the draw I, like many others, wondered if United will ever reach the levels of consistency they did under `Fergie`. The quality of the squad is without question top notch but I, and I`m not alone, question the inconsistency of mental strength and approach which is often clearly visible by demeanour and body language. Milan, with Zlat, and that darned portrait he keeps in his attic, seemingly unaffected by the ravages of time, is still a threat more than but a handful of strikers in Europe. I think it may be critical that United are at home for the second leg. Forget the impact the absence of fans has, we all know it does, but it must be recognised what a good record they have on the road.
Milan have hit a bit of a buffer with a draw v Crvena after a 3-0 thumping by city and stadium rivals Inter and there are signs of the seeds of doubt within the team. As far as United are concerned, and yes, it is some time before the Round of 16, they seem more and more capable of lifting the collective psyche than their Italian counterparts.
I think Fernandes will lap this one up and I`m taking United to go through.
United to progress.
Ajax v Young Boys
Ajax will be favourites to go through. They maintain a healthy lead at the top of the Eredivisie but more importantly they are maintaining their improvement as a side, despite the departures last season, a continuation of the trend that has been the way of life for Holland`s most famous club.
Young Boys are not so pre-eminent in their domestic league as Ajax are in Holland. Indeed their revival only started as recently as 2018 when they won their first Swiss League title for 32 years. Exactly four months later they reached the UCL Group stage for the first time in club history via a play-off round victory over Dinamo Zagreb. The bulk of their players are home-based and in terms of experience they lag far behind Ajax, even though the Dutch squad is so young. Dusan Tadic continues his renaissance and will continue to remain their most effective threat.
Ajax for the last eight.
AS Roma v Shakhtar Donetsk
Edin Dzeko, up front, and Chris Smalling, in defence, have been significant figures in the progress of Roma over the past two years. Though not prolific the Bosnian striker has netted in Serie A at a rate of just under a goal every two games while Smalling continues to show why he won 31 England caps. Together they form the spine of a side that is keeping neck and neck with surprise package Atalanta in the chase for a UCL place via the final league table. Roma might even have been pushing AC Milan for second place more than they are currently, fourth in the table at the time of the draw, if Smalling and his fellow defenders could, how shall I put it, be better at their day jobs of defending. They currently have the worst defensive record in the Top 10.
Donetsk have won the Ukrainian Premier League four years in a row and are currently ahead of two previous European Cup giants, Porto and Benfica, in the UEFA co-efficient rankings. However, like their Portuguese rivals they haven`t been a European trophy winner since the UEFA Cup, nine years ago. As usual the club is vying for top slot in Ukraine with Kyiv with those two sides seven points clear at the peak. Last year they beat Real Madrid so Roma take them on wary of just what they are capable of.
Roma to edge this one though there may be more than a few goals overall.
Olympiakos v Arsenal
Not only do Arsenal sell Sokratis Papastathopoulos – trust me that`s the last time I write that in this preview- to Olympiakos, it must have been because of the time it took to apply his name to his Gunners` shirt, than they go and draw the Greek side in the last 16, the team that knocked them out last season. And of course the media dived on that immediately with the player himself declaring that there are certain elements of the Arsenal game his new employers can exploit. Well, the `big secret` is out. But it must also be noted that there has been a seminal change in Arsenal`s game in the very recent past and it does nothing but bode well for their development and future ambitions.
You only have to go back to the most recent Europa League game when Arsenal were minutes away from exit. But then up stepped, Aubameyang with two late, late goals and that highlights the improvement under Arteta. As well as the ubber-reliable skipper the Arsenal boss can be delighted with the stellar performances of Bukayo Saka who has to be a shoe-in for Gareth Southgate with the Euros coming up. Then there`s the other English lad, Emile Smith Rowe. Posh name but tackles like a tank and has already represented his country at U16, U17, U18, U 19 and Under 20 level and will almost certainly make the jump straight into the senior squad very soon. And of course there`s Martin Odegaard who looks like class personified and there`s Martinelli lurking in the background ready to resume from whence he began his Arsenal career.
The Greek outfit are by no means slouches and have a trio that will need watching. Their former player was a much better footballer than he demonstrated, but they also have Youssef El Arabi who is not only their top scorer with 19 but also leads the Greek Super League scoring table with 17. And the old saying, form is temporary, class is permanent could almost have been written for Mathieu Valbuena. The Frenchman may be 36 now but can still produce moment of magic and the often underperforming Arsenal midfield will have to be wary.
This will be a tough tie for the Gunners but I think there will be a lot of goals but in the end Arsenal to go through.
Arsenal to reach last eight.
Dinamo Zagreb v Tottenham Hotspur
Oh dear Jose. What have you done to your team? It was all looking so good that a lot of good judges were lauding Spurs as a decent shout for the Premier League title then – perhaps a Bale-based diversion- threw a spanner in the works and now talk has decreased to an outside chance of top four. The Carabao Cup Final now looks like the best chance, almost certainly the only chance, of a trophy this season although rumour has it that Man City have already upped their order for Brasso. But anything is possible in a one-off cup final, ask Wigan!
When free-flowing Tottenham can blow any team away but they know that Zagreb have kept a clean sheet in 11 of their last 20 games so will be a tough nut to crack. Their confidence will be high as they are runaway leaders of the Croatian League.
The biggest plus for Jose, if he is still in a job, will be the return to the fold, and form of Deli Alli. It`s a pity the same cannot be said of Gareth Bale who has looked like a lost sheep since he came back from Real Madrid.
A tough one to call but if Tottenham`s `fair-weather` players can turn up, at least for the two-legs, they have a chance.
Spurs, just, to go through
Slavia Prague v Rangers
How nice to see Steven Gerrard doing so well. It`s unlikely he will add a European winners medal to his collection as a player but his reputation, and his credentials, have put him in pole position for a return to Anfield in the very near future. This tie is about much more than Gerrard but as his side stand on the brink of history, winning the SPL, he has got them there by mirroring his game on a squad that has, let`s be fair, has been in the Celtic shadow for so long.
This could be Rangers` sternest test against the side that deservedly dumped Leicester out of the previous round, albeit a Leicester side that badly underestimated their opponents. Prague are organised and resolute and will be riding high on the crest of a wave after eliminating a side that could well be playing UCL football next season.
I think this is end of the road for Rangers, Prague to progress.
Dinamo Kyiv v Villarreal
There really isn`t much to choose between these two evenly matched sides so each will be reasoning that they can get through to the quarter finals.
Villa Real are struggling to keep pace with the leading teams in la Liga while Kyiv are neck and neck with Shakhtar in the Ukrainian League. I think the game in Kyiv will be the most critical in deciding this tie. The Ukrainian side whilst not unbeatable at home have, never the less, won just under 50% of their last 20 home cup games while VillaReal have only lost three of their last 20 cup games away from home.
I`m going for the experience of Kyiv to prevail
Granada v Molde
This is a cracker between the side that shocked Napoli in the last round against the last 16 `newbies`, Molde.
Granada must be favourites to win this one as the bookies have Molde at 130-1 to progress. A tenner on that if it came in would help lift anyone prepared to risk.
Granada are floundering in the mid-reches of La Liga while Molde lie second in the Norwegian League although they are 20 points behind the leaders.
This is a great chance for two European minnows to lay down a marker and while neither are likely to feature in the Final each club would see an appearance in the quarter-finals of the Europa League as a massive step on the road to improvement. The onus is on Granada to show their well-earned victory over Napoli was not just a flash in the pan. Molde have no such pressure.
Molde to win
By Brian Beard, Associate Historian to the Football Association